4 Tips to Prevent Sibling Rivalry in Trust Litigation
November 10th, 2023
When a loved one dies it can create tension among relatives and strain family relations. Often, long-held family dynamics can become exaggerated and create conflict, sometimes even resulting in court filings. Here are some tips to prevent sibling rivalry in trust litigation. These trust litigation tips will help you and your family focus on honoring your loved one’s wishes and protecting your family’s interests from being undone by hard feelings.
How Sibling Rivalry Can Affect Your Family’s Trust
Most parents who create revocable living trusts do it to protect their assets, and provide for their children and grandchildren after their deaths. Trusts can be a good way to reduce or even eliminate the time spent in Florida probate court. However, a family feud powered by sibling rivalry or hurt feelings can affect your family’s trust and send you back to court in expensive and emotionally taxing trust litigation.
Sibling disputes based on long-held family dynamics can often erupt into conflict after a parent dies. The emotional upheaval of grieving, added to the stress of dealing with a parent’s funeral, burial, last wishes, and estate administration can push relationship tension to the breaking point. When sibling rivalry turns into trust litigation, it can cost the entire family time, money, and emotional capital to navigate the conflict and resolve the dispute.
How to Avoid Sibling Rivalry in Trust Litigation
The best way to avoid sibling rivalry in trust litigation is to never have a lawsuit filed in the first place. Parents can engage in careful estate planning during their lifetime to avoid ambiguity that can lead to litigation and ensure that each child is treated fairly. Parents can create trust documents that specify who will inherit the family home, heirlooms, business interests, and financial assets, so there is no question for the trustee to resolve after the parents’ death. Because this kind of family trust is revocable, parents can continue to fund, revise, and adjust their trusts throughout their lives to make sure everything is up to date, and there are no questions to be resolved by the Florida probate court.
Trust Litigation Tips for Family Members
While preventing sibling rivalry from leading to trust litigation is ideal, sometimes the issue does not become apparent until after the trust litigation petition is filed. When that happens, it puts family members in conflict, further straining the relational dynamic. To prevent sibling rivalry and other family tensions from harming your loved ones, you should follow these trust litigation tips:
1. Avoid Surprises By Reading the Family Trust Documents Carefully
Many times, trust litigation starts because one sibling or family member is surprised or disappointed by the distribution of assets. They may believe they are entitled to more than they receive, or that a trustee is improperly withholding distributions marked for their benefit. However, it is important to remember that trust litigation and administration all hinge on the specific language written in the family trust documents. These are the rules by which the trust’s assets must be invested, used, and distributed. Trust litigation will be far more successful if it is based on ambiguity in the language of the trust document or an improper or unfair execution of the trust’s directives, than if it is based on the perpetuation of sibling rivalry or favoritism.
2. Hire a Professional Trustee
When creating a family trust, many people will designate a trusted family member to act as trustee. This might be the sibling with a law degree or accounting experience, for example. The idea behind this is to keep the trust’s business in the family and avoid paying trustee fees to third parties.
However, when sibling rivalry threatens to lead to trust litigation, it may be wise to defer to an independent professional trustee. By hiring someone without an emotional investment in the family dynamics, you can ensure that the trustee will satisfy their fiduciary obligations to remain neutral and to serve the interests of all the trust beneficiaries equally.
3. Acknowledge Sibling Rivalry and its Causes
It is important to remember that the dynamics at play in trust litigation caused by sibling rivalry existed long before the petition was filed. It could be a result of unequal treatment by parents during their lifetimes, different expectations about support and life goals between siblings, or histories of abuse, estrangement, or other unhealthy family dynamics. The judicial system is not designed to address these dynamics, and emotional litigants often do not get the best results. It may be wise for clients to meet with a therapist while the litigation is pending so that they can preserve a measure of objectivity and be prepared to accept reasonable trust litigation settlement options.
4. Liquidate Assets to Meet Siblings’ Needs
If you and your siblings truly cannot agree on the use of trust assets, you can ask the Florida probate court to order that the trust assets be liquidated and split between the beneficiaries according to the percentages or shares described in the trust documents. This sometimes isn’t the most financially beneficial solution, since it divides up assets that could otherwise be invested to generate additional income for the family trust. But in cases where sibling rivalry leads to unresolved trust litigation, it can allow each party to use their funds the way they want to, without continued contact with their estranged family members.
This can sometimes be the best resolution of trust litigation when one sibling objects to oversight by their sibling-trustee. However, some trust documents place restrictions on when and how each beneficiary is to receive their inheritance – such as in spendthrift trusts. This can complicate liquidation efforts if you have not met the requirements outlined in the trust. You will need to carefully review the trust language to see if liquidation is an option.
Get Help Resolving Sibling Rivalry in Trust Litigation
At Harrison Estate Law, P.A., our experienced estate and probate team understands the challenging family dynamics at play in family trust litigation. We can help you navigate sibling rivalry and find a resolution that provides for your family’s needs for years to come. Contact us here or call 352-306-3835 to get help today.