Book: How to prevent family conflict before the will is read Michigan elder law attorney pens book on estate planning

One way or another, inheritance touches almost everyone, and most of us either know or fear conflict after a death in the family. But what is it that so often drives people to wage war against their own flesh and blood over a loved one's estate?

This is the vexing question veteran estate planning and elder law attorney P. Mark Accettura sets out to answer in this thought-provoking and helpful book as he explains the psychology behind why people fight over estates and provides a comprehensive list of steps will makers, heirs, and their lawyers and advisors can take to prevent family-splitting inheritance disputes. "Blood & Money: The Roots of Inheritance Disputes and How to Prevent Family Conflict Before the Will Is Read" looks beyond the usual too-simple characterization of quarreling heirs as simply greedy or petty to provide a first-ever full explanation of what makes survivors so often dissolve into combat even while they are still joined in grieving.

Accettura's conclusions are informed by his own three decades in the legal trenches, and aided by five years of research in the fields of social psychology, evolutionary psychology, psychiatry, gerontology, and neuropsychology, with counsel from experts in those disciplines. The author suggests that what appear as greed and pettiness are really symptoms of survivors' struggle to feel loved and important, and to assuage the subconscious terror activated by a loved one's death. He concludes that the fight for money and things -- Dad's watch, Mom's wedding ring -- is not about the object or the money itself, but about what they symbolize: importance, love, security, self-esteem, connectedness, and immortality.

Families also often fight over bequests, he explains, because one or more members are seriously troubled. A significant number of inheritance disputes involve testators and beneficiaries who come from dysfunctional families, are mentally ill or addicted, or suffer from one or more Cluster B personality disorders: antisocial, borderline, histrionic, or narcissistic. Accettura explores the impact of these difficult personalities and contrasts such famously toxic super-rich personages as Leona Helmsley and Sumner Redstone with the conspicuously philanthropic, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. The story of Alfred Nobel is traced as an example of how it's possible to convert a potentially negative legacy into something altruistic.

Using the well-chronicled case of philanthropist Brooke Astor as a guide, the author tracks the overlapping phenomena of dysfunctional families, progressive dementia, elder abuse, and probate litigation. When perpetrated by those who stand to inherit, he says, elder abuse is, at its roots, an impatient inheritance dispute that cannot wait for the benefactor to die.

In a long, practical concluding chapter, Accettura outlines appropriate legal protections and remedies to minimize the damage caused by bad actors. He details some sixty specific recommendations to help parents, offspring, and their advisors prevent inheritance misconduct and preserve the most valuable legacy of all: the family itself.

A number of demographic factors (Part I below) make Blood & Money a critically important and timely resource, even more so in coming years. The substantial target market (Part II) and the dearth of competing titles (Part III) should also help to make "Blood & Money" a strong backlist contender.

It is reasonable to predict a tsunami of inheritance conflict in the coming years. Contributing factors include:

Increase of Elder Abuse. The vast majority of financial elder abuse (estimated to be as high as 90 percent) is perpetrated by family members. When the bad actors are the victim's family, such abuse is essentially an inheritance dispute that begins while the testator is still living. Although the incidence of elder abuse is hard to gauge, since the vast majority of it goes undocumented, multiple media reports suggest that a troubled economy increases temptation and contributes to heightened incidence of financial elder abuse.

Growing Epidemic of Alzheimer's Disease. Financial elder abuse and inheritance disputes begin when elders are no longer able to maintain the status quo. Alzheimer's disease and dementia lead to vulnerability and dependence and open the door to those who wish to "fix" perceived past inequities. Health organizations predict that an epidemic of Alzheimer's disease will accompany the aging of the population. The incidence of Alzheimer's increases as we age, by some reports rising from 10 percent for those 65 and older to as much as 50 percent for those 85 and above. Eighty million baby boomers are now entering the age of concern. A growing cognitively challenged population will likely see increased elder financial abuse.

Failure to plan. According to a March 1, 2010 survey by Forbes Magazine, half of Americans don't have even the most basic estate plan. A national telephone survey of 1,022 adults conducted in December 2009 by Lawyers.com (the internet branch of Martindale Hubbell, the esteemed lawyer rating service) found an even lower rate of protection: only 35 percent of respondents had a will. The failure of elders to formalize their wishes provides fertile ground for conflict among those they leave behind.

As a practicing estate planning and elder law attorney for nearly thirty years, P. Mark Accettura has counseled thousands of families on estate and inheritance matters and has been involved in scores of legal battles among heirs. He lectures frequently on estate planning topics and was for ten years an adjunct law professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and for five years the host of a regular television interview series, LawTalk, seen via cable in 37 cities in Michigan.

He is author of two regional books on estate planning and elder law issues, "Medicaid and Long Term Care in Michigan" (2005) and "The Michigan Estate Planning Guide" (2nd Edition 2002), and "Lost and Found: Finding Self-Reliance after the Death of a Spouse" (2001).

In preparing "Blood & Money," Accettura consulted a range of specialists in the fields of law, psychology, psychiatry, neuropsychology, gerontology, and Roman Catholic Canon law.

"Blood & Money" offers an unprecedented understanding of the family dynamic as applied to estate planning. The book will appeal to a wide audience of lawyers, elder service providers, financial advisors, and family counselors, as well as parents, stepparents, and their grown children.

Published: Tue, Aug 2, 2011

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