Family dynamics, especially sibling rivalry, can be particularly daunting, especially when dealing with the often sensitive topic of inheritance.

Here are some things you should take into consideration when it comes to siblings and inheritances, especially if you are parents deciding how to distribute your estate, or a sibling concerned with receiving your fair share.

Intestate Distribution as the “Default” Method

Passing away without a last will or a trust listing how you want your property to be distributed is known as dying intestate. In this situation, the state has a series of “default” ways that property is distributed among surviving family members.

Arizona’s intestate inheritance laws are designed to reflect what lawmakers believe is a fair distribution of an estate.

For example, if you die intestate, are married, and have children from that marriage, then your surviving spouse inherits everything. If you have children but no spouse, the children inherit everything equally.

If you are married, but have children with someone else, your surviving spouse will inherit half of your separate property, and keep their half of the community property you owned jointly. Your half of the community property, as well as the other half of your separate property will be distributed equally among your children.

Distributions in an Estate Plan

Although Arizona’s laws provide for intestate distribution, I believe it is far better to create a proper estate plan, complete with either a last will and testament or trust. Even if you decide to follow the intestate inheritance laws in your estate plan, laying out your wishes in a clear, concise, and easy-to-read manner will help your surviving family members carry them out.

Moreover, the intestate property distributions may not reflect how you want your property to be distributed. This is sometimes the case in blended families. For example, one partner may come into a marriage with more property than the other, and they may want this property to go primarily to their biological children after they die.

While families generally split estates evenly between their children, this is not always the case. If one sibling pursues advanced degrees that their parents pay for, the other sibling may receive a similar gift as part of their inheritance.

Alternatively, a couple may decide to distribute their estate in an uneven manner due to their children’s own family needs. For example, Alice and Bob’s son, Carl, is a single father with two young children. Their daughter, Daphne, and son-in-law, Ed, do not have or want children and are highly successful in their careers. When preparing their estate plan, Alice and Bob decide to leave a greater percentage of their estate to Carl to support him and his children.

Occasionally, children will forego career opportunities to be part-time or full-time caregivers for their elderly parents as they age. If this is the case, their parents may revise their inheritance documents accordingly.

Avoiding Trust And Will Challenges

According to one survey, siblings are the cause of 44% of will disputes. Typically, siblings  challenge wills due to uneven distributions or claims of unfairness. One key way to avoid disputes after you pass is to communicate with your children the reasons why you are distributing your assets the way they are divided in your trust or will.

In an ideal situation, there should be no surprises in an estate plan – death is enough shock to a family without additional surprises or responsibilities. Even if old resentments and jealousies appear, siblings can often be appeased by having an open and honest conversation with their parents to help them understand their parents’ intentions and reasons.

Sometimes, will challenges are necessary. For example, there are a number of unfortunate situations where caretakers take advantage of elderly patients. By exerting undue influence, these people are able to convince their patients to change their estate plans, in favor of the caretaker.

If this is a situation you find your family in, it could be worth investigating whether or not your elderly relative was of sound mind at the time the will was changed – a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease could invalidate a will prepared later in life.

One final thought for children who may be miffed at the inheritance division in their parents’ estates: you can never count on receiving an inheritance. As much as your parents may intend to leave you their assets, there are plenty of things that can happen between the time their will is drafted and when the funds are distributed. Your parents may spend their money on well-deserved vacations. Their family home could be rendered useless due to a natural disaster unless they pay for repairs. Instead of wasting energy on jealousy or resentment, it’s better to enjoy the time you have with your family while you still can.This article does not provide legal advice. If you are thinking about the best way to distribute your estate to your children, or have other estate planning questions, please do not hesitate to contact me today.