Where There's an Inheritance


Book on Wills Tells the Story of Life

Paul Lungen

At the end of their 212-page book on wills and inheritance, authors Les Kotzer and Barry Fish tell a story that pretty much sums up the lessons to be learned from practising this particular branch of the law.

It arises out of a seminar they hosted on wills and estates, in which a questioner bares her soul discussing the disagreement she had with her brother over a business their father had left them. Can you separate a business relationship from a personal one involving a brother, they are asked, prompting a volley of responses from the seminar participants that goes on for hours.

As they sum up the evening, the lawyers say: “We came here so that we could help you learn something about the law; but as it turned out, you helped us learn something about life.”

In 80 vignettes, distilled from a combined 50 years in the practice of law, Kotzer and Fish have put together a fascinating and eminently readable compilation of incidents that describe the human condition.

Titled, Where There’s an Inheritance, the book is less an exposition on the law applicable to wills, and more about the people whose lives turn for the better – often for the worst – over the way in which a loved one’s estate is distributed. Kotzer and Fish also co-wrote The Family Fight...Planning to Avoid It and The Family War...Winning the Inheritance Battle.

It is shocking to see how even the best of families can be torn apart over an inheritance, how once close brothers and sisters will never speak again after the death of a parent. Money, apparently, changes everything, often not for the better, but the book also presents heartwarming stories of siblings rediscovering the closeness of their relationship after their parent’s death.

The stories are “reality,” explained Kotzer, who has appeared on Canadian and American television and radio shows to discuss wills. “This is not a book of fables.”

Indeed. There’s the story of the mother who loaned large sums to both her son and daughter. After her husband died she found herself in dire financial straits. When she asked her children to help her by paying back some of the money, they became angry, turned her down and her son even told her to “prove it” – demonstrate that the money he’d received was a loan and not a gift.

Then there’s the one about grandfather’s prized gold watch, which was purchased in the 1950s after the family pooled together $3,000 (a huge sum back then). The grandchildren’s great-aunt had been given the money and asked to purchase the watch. When the grandchildren went to get it appraised decades later, it turned out it was worth only $389 – their great-aunt had pocketed the difference!

Then there was the case of the uncle who became guardian and executor for his nephew and niece. The will instructed him to transfer a substantial inheritance to them when they turned 18. Despite his advice to them to permit him to continue to manage their estate, they demanded the money. It didn’t take long for both children to burn through their entire inheritance.

Of course, not all the stories are so disheartening. Cynthia was a mother who at the end of her life was saddened that her children had grown apart. As part of the will-reading, she prepared a photo album showing the way the two had grown up – extremely close and loving siblings. A posthumous letter reminded them how they had looked out for each other as they grew up. Cynthia’s wisdom and love brought the siblings together and the two were no longer cold and distant, Kotzer and Fish write.

Wills have to be tailored to the specific needs of clients, Kotzer explained. And they have to be able to stand up over time. “You have to look down a long road,” added Fish.

“The book takes you deep into what can happen, the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Kotzer. “After you read it you will realize the depth of what you need to know.”

One incident, told in the book, affected Kotzer’s own views on life. After an appearance on Citytv’s Breakfast Television, he received a request to meet with a terminally ill patient to compose her will. The woman came to his office on a cold, windy, rainy, miserable day. When he went down into the parking lot to meet her, she had her hand out the door and commented, “what a beautiful day.” Kotzer learned that “Rachel” had died only a few weeks after their meeting. “That woman changed my outlook on life,” he said. “You learn to appreciate what you’ve got.”

The book, he continued, “will change the way people look at life and family.”

And though a good portion of the stories show how families can come to blows over property, it also demonstrates that “it’s not worth fighting over. Families will see themselves in some of these stories. There may be solutions [to their problems] and people won’t feel alone. They’re not alone.”

Copyright © Continental Atlantic Publications