Handling Inheritance Issues With Siblings

How To Deal With Disagreements Over Inherited Assets

Siblings discussing estate plan with father
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Jon Feingersh Photography Inc / Getty Images

In a perfect world, your parents would have created a will and a plan for how their assets would be distributed once they’re gone. However, the will may be incomplete or different from what you or your siblings expected. If so, there could be some conflict when you and your siblings find out how the inheritance is being divided. 

It’s not just about the money. “One of the most difficult aspects of splitting an inheritance is the emotional component,” said James Miller, a licensed psychotherapist and host of the Lifeology radio show. “When a parent passes, all children will have their way of expressing their grief.” Unfortunately, it may come out as resentment or hostility if someone has an issue with how the estate is distributed. 

Key Takeaways

  • Disputes can happen if heirs are surprised by what’s in a will, if they think assets are being unfairly distributed, or if they can’t agree on what to do with inherited property. 
  • Proper planning and communication by parents before their death and by heirs after a parent’s death can help prevent disagreements. 
  • It can be helpful to involve a neutral third party to handle disputes and oversee the distribution of an inheritance.
  • In certain cases, it may be possible to contest a will.

How Is Property Divided Among Siblings?

When inherited property is distributed, assets (including bank accounts, real estate, and valuables) typically go to heirs as outlined in the deceased person’s will. There may also be an accompanying letter of instruction, if applicable. 

Parents get to decide how they want to divvy up their assets, or if they want to leave anything to their children at all. Some parents choose to split their estate equally among their kids, while others might want specific items or amounts to go to certain people.

Note

Certain types of property, such as life insurance policies, bank accounts, and retirement accounts, aren’t included in wills. Instead, you choose beneficiaries through the institution that holds your account and the funds aren’t subject to probate, even if other parts of your estate are.

If there is no will, or some of the property is not included in the will, the person is said to have died intestate. In the case of intestacy, the probate court ensures the inheritance is divided among heirs according to state law.

Intestate Succession

Intestate succession—or how the estate is distributed—varies depending on the state.You should check out the laws in your state, but in general, property will be distributed among the decedent’s surviving spouse or domestic partner and children (biological and adopted). If someone does not have a spouse, domestic partner, or children, their assets will typically go to one or more of the following relatives:

Note

In some cases, grandchildren may be able to receive a share of the estate, even if there are other living children. If there is no spouse, and the children of the parent that died are all still alive, the estate will typically be split equally among them.

Your State’s Inheritance Laws

If your state is on this list, you can learn more about intestate laws here:

Reasons Siblings May Fight Over Inheritance

Even when a parent leaves a clear and comprehensive will, their children may be unhappy with the way assets were distributed.  Some situations are more likely to cause tension than others. Clear communication is an important aspect of estate planning.

Distribution of Inheritance

Siblings may fight if they believe that assets have been distributed unfairly or unequally. Emily Bouchard, a leadership and legacy consultant at Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank explained in an email to the Balance that disputes can be caused by unresolved feelings about favoritism in families. “This can be particularly problematic when one of the siblings is made executor and will also be benefitting from receiving their portion of the inheritance,” she wrote. 

Bouchard shared an example involving a man who ran a successful business until he had a stroke. His youngest daughter stepped in to run the business and his affairs until his death. She continued to build up the value of the company and negotiated a sale that took care of her mother’s lifestyle needs and set up trusts for herself and her siblings with equal amounts. Her siblings refused to speak with her, claiming that she gave herself an unfair bonus and took money that should have been distributed equally among them, even though her two siblings did not work in the business.

Surprises in the Will

If you choose not to distribute money among all of your children equally, you should explain why to your children. Try to be as clear as possible about which child is inheriting what, so there aren’t unnecessary arguments. Bouchard explained that disputes often arise when a parent promises something to one child without telling the other children or considering their feelings.

Similarly, a parent may promise something to multiple children at different times. One child might take the item that was promised to them, without first communicating with siblings, who also may have received a similar promise at another time.

Disagreements Over What To Do With Inherited Property

If you and your siblings jointly inherit land or a house from your parents, you might not agree on what to do with the property. One person may want to sell it, and another might want to keep it. The simplest solution is a buyout. One sibling can purchase the rest of the house from the others.

Note

If one heir wants to keep the property but can’t afford to pay their siblings right away, an installment plan with interest may be an option.

If no one is quite ready to live in the house, but you or one of your siblings doesn’t want to sell, you may consider renting it out and splitting any rent profit. Or if only one person wants to live in the house, they could pay rent to their siblings.

If you aren’t able to resolve the situation amicably, you may want to look into the laws in your state. If you want to keep the house, see how you can protect yourself from a partition action, which is a forced sale by one co-owner. If you want to sell the house, make sure that you can meet the requirements to force a sale. Keep in mind that creating a legal conflict with your siblings should be a last resort.

Tips for Handling Disagreements Among Siblings

With proper planning, parents can help head off inheritance disagreements among their children, but after a parent’s death, siblings will need to take steps to avoid or handle disputes themselves.

Have a Policy in Place

Your parents should have a clear estate plan in place, but your family should also have a policy on how to handle inheritance conflicts that may come up. “Unfortunately, when there is not a standardized way to resolve conflicts, the family is often challenged to come up with solutions while also in the midst of grief and loss,” Bouchard wrote. She recommended that families include a conflict resolution policy in family estate plans, created by a committee of family members and approved by the family as a whole.

Seek Counseling

Bouchard said that when there is an argument over a family heirloom, it has more to do with unexpressed emotions from the past than money. She recommended a family therapist get involved so that each sibling’s perspective is  “respected and understood.”

Involve a Third Party

“In situations with significant grief and infighting, it's important to remove the emotions from the decision-making,” Miller said. This may be easier said than done, however, because each party has a different idea of what is fair and reasonable.

Miller said that if possible, a neutral third party should handle executing the estate. For example, you can hire an attorney to help, or even enter mediation. The latter is a process that allows you to avoid going to court over any inheritance-related disagreements. It tends to be less expensive, and is a much more private, personal and low-pressure solution than taking the issue to court.

Taking Sibling Disputes to Court

If you’ve tried and failed to resolve inheritance issues outside of court, a last-resort solution is contesting the will. To do so, you’ll need to present a valid reason. A will cannot be contested simply because it is unfair or even cruel. Valid reasons can include proving that the testator was unduly influenced or lacked the capacity to sign a will.

Contesting a will in court can be a time-consuming and costly process, so consider carefully whether it’s worth pursuing. Also, keep in mind that once the will reaches probate, you may have limited time to contest it.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What type of lawyer should you get for money and inheritance issues with siblings?

If you’re struggling to resolve inheritance issues with siblings, you can hire an attorney that specializes in estate planning and/or trust and probate litigation. These legal professionals can help siblings navigate the proper distribution of assets and any disputes that arise.

Who issues an inheritance check?

When a person dies, their will usually goes through probate, a court-supervised review to ensure it’s authentic and valid. Once that happens, the executor of the estate or a legal representative designated by the court must inventory all the assets, have them appraised and pay off any creditors. Once all that is done, the executor can then distribute the inheritance to the beneficiaries.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fidelity. “Settling the Estate: Probate.”

  2. Cornell Law School. “Intestacy.”

  3. Trust & Will. “Guide to Sibling Inheritance Laws.”

  4. Thomas Weiss & Associates, P.C. “New York’s New Law Limits Partition Actions.”

  5. Keystone Law Group, P.C. “Can a Will Be Contested?

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