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Will Contests & Estate Disputes – Five Ways to Avoid a Family Feud 

Trusts & Estate Planning


by Kira S. Masteller


Even in the most complacent of families, estate disputes can sometimes arise under the added strain of bereavement and emotional loss.

When family members don't get along (which is more common than not) family feuds can take on a costly aspect in terms of time and money spent in litigation. Estate disputes can drain all of the resources you've worked hard for, and leave the ones you love most feeling bitter, neglected and without the gifts you intended to leave them. 


Avoiding a Contest


First, you'll need to take some common sense measures.

The most common argument a family member will make when disputing a will or trust is that the writer, or testator, was not of sound mind. Based upon your age or medical condition, consider having your doctor and a psychologist evaluate your physical and mental health just before finalizing your will, so that you can avoid this allegation.

Seek your own legal counsel, separate from other family members to protect your interests and the interests of those you wish to give gifts to.  

Consider hiring a corporate trustee to serve instead of family members. Corporate trustees are less likely to be seen as abusing their trustee powers; whereas a stepparent or favored child may unwittingly cause suspicion or jealousy among your other heirs.

Last, make sure you own the property you plan to bequeath outright. Jointly owned property such as business interests, real estate, time shares, etc., may revert to other owners.

Once you've done all of these things, you're ready to put your intentions in black and white. Here are five simple steps you can take to avoid inheritance disputes when you pass: 

1. Equal and Unequal Distribution of Property:

Try not to play favorites. The general rule here is to ensure that all of your children and/or your spouse are treated equally. There's not much room for argument when three children each get 1/3 of the house, business, or other property. 

Even better, if you can distribute property while you're still living – make sure you have legal documentation reflecting what you gave or sold to your heirs – you may avoid a contest altogether. 

But how should you handle distribution of your estate if you absolutely don't want to treat all of your family members equally?  

2. Disinheritance:

Make your intentions clear by defining which people will not inherit property, or which will get smaller shares of your estate. Avoid the whys and wherefores – these only encourage bad feelings and potential contests.  

3. Family Financial Obligations:

Seed money for an heir to buy a house or start a business should be thought out carefully. Is the money an outright gift? Is it a loan that needs to be paid back to your estate? Or is it an advancement on your estate? Clearly define your intentions here, to avoid family arguments and litigation.  

4. Business & Property Contracts:

Your business is thriving and all of your children want a share, but one in particular devoted a career to nurturing and running it while the others pursued other interests. Consider selling it to your heir of choice outright, while you're still alive.  

5. No Contest Clauses:

Make your heirs forfeit their interests in your estate should they contest your trust. This can make the more disgruntled members of your family think twice before raising disputes.


Kira S. Masteller is a Trusts and Estate Planning Attorney who helps family members avoid will and estate disputes and probate proceedings. Contact her via e-mail:

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