Where There's an Inheritance

The Star

Bad scenes that you won't see

Nancy J. White
living reporter

Les Kotzer has been on the front lines of brutal battles full of hate, rage and destruction. He's a wills lawyer.

He and co-author Barry Fish tell the gory details in a book, Where There's an Inheritance – Stories from inside the world of two wills lawyers. The authors, who practise law in Thornhill, say wills shouldn't be a recipe for war, that you can avoid the devastating disputes.

Kotzer, 54, spoke to the Star about spiteful siblings, smashed crystal and a deaf uncle.

Q: What's the worst case of greed you've seen?

A: Oh, there are a few. One woman only had nieces and nephews. She loved them dearly, called them her "babies." She was going in for open heart surgery and was told her chances weren't good.

She didn't die and came home earlier than expected, with lots of pills to take. One day, she dropped a pill under the dining-room table. As she bent to pick it up, she noticed a yellow sticky note under the table. It had a niece's name on it. She went around her house and found many sticky notes with names. They'd divvied up her stuff as if she'd died. She made up a new will, cutting them all out.

One time, we found an enraged woman in our parking lot waving a crystal vase. She was yelling that she bought it for her mother and she wanted it back. Her mother had died and her sister, the executor, wouldn't give it to her. We told her the vase belonged to the estate, not to her. She smashed it on the ground, saying, "Then no one can have it." That's the kind of rage we see.

Q: What happens if you die without a will?

A: Then the law writes it for you. A few examples: If you're married and have children, your spouse gets the first $200,000 and the spouse and children split the rest. If there are two or more children, they split two-thirds and the spouse gets one-third. That's a recipe for a possible family fight between the children and spouse. A child would get everything at age 18, no matter the level of maturity. For young children, no will, no named guardian. Also, without a will, your common-law partner gets nothing.

Q: What's the biggest mistake people tend to make with wills?

A: There are a few. The wills are outdated with no provisions for grandchildren or protection in case a child divorces. The person named executor is now 87 and in poor health. Also, people assume the kids will work out who gets what assets.

Q: What assets cause the most trouble?

A: Money is easily divisible. The problems we see are often over personal items, fighting over memories. How do you divide mom's wedding ring?

Q: Any clever ways of allocating assets?

A: One woman told me about her uncle. On Sundays, his nieces and nephews would visit. During the week, they would sometimes take him to the doctor, bring him food. In his mid-80s, he started going deaf. Then, at his 90th birthday party, he stood up and announced he'd never been deaf and had heard everything they'd said about him. He based his will on what he'd heard.

Q: The worst family feud?

A: Oh, God. There are so many. One woman's brother, a hippie back in the 1960s who called their father "a capitalist pig," fought her for every nickel after the father died.

In another case, one woman was her mother's caregiver while her sister rarely visited or called. The caregiving sister convinced their mother not to cut the sister out of the will. The mother left the distant sister 5 per cent, giving her entrée into the estate. While the caregiver was named executor, the sister used her leverage to question everything, making life miserable.

Other siblings went to court, fighting over a family portrait of themselves.

Q: Let's say you're writing up your will and you really don't like your son-in-law.

A: If you leave your child money, the inheritance is protected from the son- or daughter-in-law in case of divorce. But you need a clause protecting the growth on the inheritance.

Q: Can you write in controls: "My daughter doesn't get a penny until she finally finishes college"?

A: We don't like rulings from the grave. It creates issues for court interpretation. I once got a call from a lawyer about a homemade will. The person appointed his brother as executor, as long as the brother could prove he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He gave money to his sister, as long as she took out a newspaper ad thanking him. And he gave $10,000 to the first grandson to be named Joe, his name. I don't know what happened, but I think it would have to go to a judge.

Q: What about cutting out a child?

A: My recommendation is, rather than just a short statement in the will, the person write a long letter explaining why he or she is doing it. I've had parents in my office crying, devastated about what's happened. Sometimes an in-law has pushed their child away or there's jealousy. Sometimes they're afraid the child will end up on the streets. We can set up a trust with maybe a sibling managing the money. That's a middle ground.

Q: You also write songs, such as "Photos in a Drawer," "The Family Fight." Is your songwriting actually inspired by your wills work?

A: Yes. I wanted to write songs to touch hearts and make people realize it's not worth the fight. What you're losing is more than what you're gaining. Music can do a lot that lawyers can't.

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