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estate planning

Leslie S. Kotzer is a lawyer who deals in wills and estates. He co-wrote "Where There's an Inheritance...Stories from Inside the World of Two Wills Laywers".Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In his nearly 20 years as a wills lawyer, Les Kotzer has seen families transformed - for good and bad - when a loved one passes away.

He's watched bitterly estranged siblings make up in tears after reading a letter written by their dying mother. He's seen ostensibly happy families torn apart by battles over everything from cottages to jewellery.

He and Barry Fish, both of Fish & Associates in Thornhill, Ont., have compiled their stories in two previous books, The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It, and The Family War: Winning the Inheritance Battle, which they co-authored with Jordan Atin.

Got a question on estate planning? Ask Les Kotzer and Barry Fish in a live discussion at noon on Monday, June 8. You can get a jump on the queue by submitting your question here.

Their latest book, Where There's an Inheritance ... Stories From Inside the World of Two Wills Lawyers, offers up more touching and tragic tales from their legal practice and from people they've encountered at seminars and in radio and TV appearances.

"We have consistently found that death and inheritance unleash a vast range of emotions which embrace bitter mean-spiritedness on one end of the spectrum, and the deepest imaginable wellsprings of goodwill and love on the other," they write in Where There's an Inheritance.

We asked Mr. Kotzer for some tips on avoiding family feuds.

You've seen families destroyed by inheritance battles. What's the most important thing people can do to make sure it doesn't happen to them?

A couple of things. One is communication. The discussion between parents and children is very important. These things should be talked about well in advance, such as who should be appointed executor. Silence is not golden when it comes to estate planning.

Second, organize your affairs. Don't leave a mess for your kids. If your children have borrowed money from you, keep your documentation so one's not arguing with the other saying he paid it back and the other one's saying he didn't pay it back. Keep your documents up to date, your will, your power of attorney.

What is it about estates that causes so much heartache for families? Is it money or something deeper?

A lot of the fighting isn't over money, it's over the memories in the home [such as artwork or family jewellery] There are issues of being slighted. For example, a lot of children will say, "How come my brother got appointed executor and not me? And I'm going to fight him because I think he's going to take advantage of the estate."

When cottages are passed down to siblings, it's often a recipe for conflict. Why?

Imagine a hockey game without a referee. It's the same thing when a parent dies. When the referee is not there any more, I believe all bets are off. Because what you have with joint ownership, it's not necessarily just the kids. They have their spouse and their families, so that joint ownership multiplies. So it's hard for it to work.

Sometimes parents will come to me and say, "You know Les, I'm not going to leave the cottage to any of my kids. I'm going to sell it." Sometimes that may be the only solution.

What are some of the most common estate planning mistakes people make?

One of the mistakes people make is they don't update their documents, or they don't have documents and they leave it to chance. In Canada, if you die without a will, the province writes the will for you, and there's a set formula in every province as to who gets what.

A lot of people come into me with these outdated wills done in the 1980s where they appointed their brother, who is now 87 years old, as executor, their kids are now in their 40s. Why not think about appointing your kids as executors to look after their own estate when you go?

So you've got to keep your documents up to date, keep them living, breathing documents. Have them updated when things change in your life, when you have grandkids, if assets change, when you move, if there's a divorce in your family.

Have you ever seen families that were perfectly happy, always got along well and were respectful of each other, and yet when it came time to divvy up the parents' estate, everything fell apart?

Yes, absolutely, I've seen that many times. Sometimes there are underlying issues. Maybe one child felt mom always favoured the other child. Or one person feels there's power being abused. Or there are assets that are so valuable, not from the point of view of money but the memory value, that that child will fight tooth and nail over it. Sometimes it gets to the point where years go by and people tell me "Les, I don't even remember what we fought about, but we don't talk any more. "