Where There's an Inheritance

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Good and bad -- it's all about family

Lawyers share behind-the-scenes will planning

By Irene Seiberling

Some will make you smile -- even laugh out loud. Others will tug at your heartstrings -- even bring a tear to your eye. (Keep a box of tissues handy!) And some of the stories shared in a new book by two Toronto-based wills lawyers will leave you rolling your eyes in disgust and disbelief.

It's all there -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

"Hopefully, it will change the way people look at their life, and their family and estate planning," says Les Kotzer, who co-authored Where There's An Inheritance ... (Continental Atlantic Publications, $24.95) with law partner Barry Fish.

This is their third book. The first two -- The Family Fight ... Planning to Avoid It and The Family War ... Winning the Inheritance Battle -- are information books, written to help people understand wills. They provide the "nuts and bolts of what you need to know about wills and power of attorney, and that kind of stuff," Kotzer explained in a telephone interview from his Toronto law office.

Their latest book takes an altogether different approach.

"This book is about more than wills. It takes readers behind the scenes -- into the world of wills lawyers -- a world that few people will ever see and understand," he said.

With more than 20 years experience in the field, Kotzer said he and his partner have seen some of the best and worst in people.

"There's so much that can be learned from the experience of others -- the shocking, the good stuff, the touching stuff, and some of the lighter side. Obviously there's some humour in there as well," he said. "People need to hear this stuff, and need to see what can happen to a family."

There are a lot of wakeup calls in the 212-page paperback, Kotzer pointed out.

Kotzer and Fish provide a glimpse at the lengths some people will go to protect their family -- as well as how far some will go to get back at family members they feel have wronged them.

Some of the stories in the book will make readers appreciate what they've got; and some will make them realize what they could lose if they don't do something now, Kotzer said.

"We've tried to capture the essence of the stories, and really leave an imprint on people's lives when they read them, and make them realize how short life is, how valuable family is, what can happen to the family," he explained.

Right at the start of the book, the authors point out that, because of client confidentiality, they had to change the name, occupation, and perhaps sex of clients, as well as some of the circumstances and scenarios.

"Basically, no one would know that they're in the book," Kotzer insisted. "Where we were less careful (protecting people's identity) is where we had radio or television shows, because these are public. Those are pretty well verbatim."

Rather than chronicle cases exactly as they unfolded, Kotzer explained that he and Fish "tried to freeze frame the essence of that moment."

There are stories of greed. For example, a woman discovered that while she was in hospital, her nephews and nieces had gone through her home and used pieces of tape to mark the items they wanted after she died.

The goodness of people shines through in some stories, like the one about a mother who found a way to bring her estranged kids back together after her death. Or one in which two successful, professional siblings insisted on giving their mother's entire estate to their less fortunate siblings -- because they knew that was what she'd want -- even though the mom had left equal shares to each of her children in her will.

Humorous stories include one about an uncle's unique estate-planning technique. In his mid 80s, he started to pretend to be deaf. Then, at his 90th birthday party, he stood up and admitted he could hear everything. And, much to the chagrin of his unsuspecting nieces and nephews -- who had spoken openly in front of him because they didn't think he could hear them (and often unflatteringly about him) -- he planned his will based on what he had heard them say about him.

Some stories teach readers a lesson.

"Maybe hold your tongue before you fight," Kotzer advised, citing the example of a son who had a terrible relationship with his father, who called him a spendthrift. He resented the father for making him pay rent. But when the father died, his will directed the son to a bank account where all the rent money had been held for him as a forced savings plan -- a nest egg for his future.

"The son could never thank the father for doing that for him," Kotzer said.

Where There's An Inheritance ... also cautions readers. For example, care should be taken by those in second marriages, who assume their children will be provided for after they die.

"What you have to be very careful of in a second marriage is leaving everything to your second spouse, thinking he is going to leave everything to your children when he dies. He doesn't have to," Kotzer explained.

The book also sheds light on the real aftermath of a family war. Sure, you can pay your lawyer and go to court, and win. But you then have to deal with a family member who has become your enemy.

It's not who got the ring and who got the watch after fighting with family members about mom or dad's will. The real aftermath, a client explained to Kotzer, is things like being forced to sit at the same table at a family wedding with a brother who is now your enemy, and knowing when he whispers to the man beside him that he's probably talking about you. You may find yourself sticking your head into the washroom to make sure he's not there, or uptight that he might be behind you in the lineup for cake. Or, you might find yourself kicking your wife under the table so she doesn't say the wrong thing, which could start a fight at the table.

Fish and Kotzer also provide a glimpse of the type of phone calls they receive. For example, a woman who inherited a house from her father asked how long after her dad's funeral she should wait to tell her brothers they can never come into that house again. Or, the client who said "next time you speak to my brother, tell him how much I hate him."

The book cautions parents about loaning money to their kids without proper documentation. In one case, a woman was forced to work two jobs after her husband died and her children either refused or were unable to repay a substantial loan.

The pitfalls of joint assets are also presented. A mother who put her son's name on the title of her house to protect against probate, for example, couldn't sleep at night because she was worried she was going to lose her house after her son's business went bankrupt and his creditors came calling.

"Estate planning is not all about saving money or taxes; it can also be about saving your family, as well," Kotzer emphasized.

Copyright © Continental Atlantic Publications