Where There's an Inheritance

The Business Review

Finance: Bookshelf—Estate Planning

Review by Philip Schwartz

Where There’s an Inheritance: Stories from Inside the World of Two Wills Lawyers

By Barry M. Fish and Les Kotzer

212 pp.; Continental Atlantic Publications


Barry M. Fish and Les Kotzer open their new book “Where There’s an Inheritance” discussing their decades of work drawing up wills and representing clients caught up in inheritance disputes.

It can be ugly work, the book makes clear. But it can be fulfilling work, too. And, what you wouldn’t expect, funny work.

“We have consistently found,” Fish and Kotzer write in the introduction, “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.”

Both poles are represented here in 80 vignettes, anecdotes and case studies drawn from Fish’s and Kotzer’s work. In those 80 brief sections are plenty of lessons learned for estate planning; some include tactics that work, but many are filled with the foibles of human nature that would best be avoided, if possible.

“The lessons to be learned, from the pain and distress so common to family battles over inheritance, have led us to develop our own focus on how to avoid, or to at least minimize, family battles,” they write.

That said, “Inheritance” is somewhat of a departure from Fish and Kotzer’s other two books, “The Family Fight ... Planning to Avoid It,” and “The Family War ... Winning the Inheritance Battle,” which deal more with the nuts and bolts of the laws as a way to help families better understand wills and inheritance.

The lessons in the new book, released this week, are not as direct. That is, “Inheritance” is less a how-to book and more a series of stories and snapshots about mistakes made, and to a lesser degree, wills done right.

Scattered throughout are some funny stories—a watch passed down through generations thought to be worth thousands that turns out to be a fake, a father who signs one will in front of his second wife calls his sons into his office to draw up another that favors them.

But there are plenty of examples of wills failing, often because they lack specificity. In “Inheritance,” family fights break out because a mother, say, leaves all her possessions to her two daughters, leaving them to fight over who gets the nice glassware and who gets the prized silverware.

The book aptly ends with the story of a seminar Fish and Kotzer gave at which a woman sought advice about her brother.

She and her brother both inherited a 50-50 share of the family business. That created all sorts of personal and legal problems because the brother had long been devoted to the business, and she had little involvement.

Her share, it could be argued, was not earned.

Fish and Kotzer write about how the case sparked all kinds of debate at this seminar. And finally a man stood up and said, “Sometimes, the parents must take the blame, and it is not always the fault of the children.”

That theme is an undercurrent in this book. Failure to plan specifically often leads to disputes—more so, it seems, than greed or some perceived ugliness of human nature.

If there is a problem with “Inheritance,” it’s that the stories in it are mere snippets. While the book is fun to read, its vignettes are undeveloped, and there’s a certain sameness to the storytelling. Some readers might find themselves wanting more. That said, attorney-client privilege, no doubt, prohibited the authors from divulging more detail throughout.

Even so, Fish and Kotzer’s simple, straightforward language is refreshing and accessible, as they avoid what can be the dry aspects of their work—process and legalese.

“Entertaining” and “funny” typically aren’t words associated with the world of wills and estate planning, but they’re apt for this book.

Copyright © Continental Atlantic Publications