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Estate division a balancing act


WE ALL GASPED at the infighting over the Pritzker fortune and puzzled over Bill Gates' vow to leave the majority of his wealth to charity, not his kids.

Of course, none of us would go toe-to-toe with our cousins over Grandma's 60-piece set of Haviland china. And no one of more modest means would think of cutting out the kids in favor of a cause. Right?

Ahem. Consider the siblings who engraved their names on their parents' possessions before their deaths, or the woman who smashed a crystal vase in a parking lot so no one else could have it. Or the aunt who was a no-show at her niece's wedding because of bad blood with her brother over division of an estate.

"There are far too many instances where apologies are simply not enough to resolve what becomes a very deep and lasting conflict," attorney Les Kotzer wrote in The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It, an estate planning book that includes these tales.

Kotzer promoted the book last year on radio call-in shows and heard hundreds more stories.

The meek may inherit the Earth, but apparently the cabin in South Haven goes to the bold.

Jayme Simoes, a New Hampshire public relations executive, watched relationships virtually disintegrate in a 20-year standstill over several family homes in Portugal that sit in a trust requiring all parties to agree on a split before it can be passed down.

"Because of the fighting, and delays, the houses are in very rough shape, many beyond repair," Simoes said. "The longer we wait the more money will be needed to save the houses. I hope that eventually we will all see the madness of this."

Isn't there a better way? Mixing family, death and money is a prescription for volatility, but can you stave off hurt and anger when divvying up the goods?

Many parents cling to a share and share alike mentality, but is that best if one child is far wealthier?

Tread carefully if you plan to leave unequal amounts to your heirs, cautioned Eileen Gallo, principal of the Gallo Institute in Los Angeles, which counsels families on estate issues.

"Children often equate inheritance with love, so if parents are choosing to not treat children equally in an estate, they should talk with their kids about the reasons why," Gallo said. "We counseled one couple who was very wealthy. The wife's brother had lobbied his parents to leave 'the sister' out of the will, and, of course, she was upset because she felt penalized for success."

Sometimes obvious circumstances - gambling or drug addictions - dictate an unequal split. But when the lines blur, relationships can hang in the balance.

The Rev. David Heetland, a pastor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., also is a certified financial planner and father of two adults in their 20s.

He wrestles competing instincts of splitting his inheritance equally between them or giving a substantial amount to charity and dividing the rest according to need. And he takes to heart the biblical story of the prodigal son, who squanders his inheritance but is forgiven.

"What stands out in the parable for me is that God's gifts are not earned," said Heetland, 55.

For now, he plans to give at least 10 percent of his estate to charity and split the rest evenly between his kids, who are close in age and in financial circumstances.

He hopes that through his example of giving and his spiritual beliefs, his kids will be at peace with any redistribution of money if circumstances change.

"I hope that by the time my estate plan is in place, I will have a better understanding of how much will help them to be responsible stewards and how much might be harmful to this goal and to their own self-worth," Heetland said. "I know for sure that I won't leave everything to them, because I also want to express appreciation to those institutions that have been important to me."

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at

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