How to Settle an Estate Peacefully

By Angie Epting Morris

Many attorneys believe that most problems related to dividing an estate could be handled outside of the courtroom. Those who counsel individuals about family feuds and personal conflicts that arise during estate settlements usually agree that most could be solved without attorneys if people would just listen to one another, communicate, and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." However, that's easier said than done.

THE SETTLEMENT GAME: How to Settle an Estate Peacefully and Fairly, identifies three main sources of conflict and offers strategies for what to do about them to avoid a family feud.

1. Many of the problems that arise at the time of a division or settlement of an estate are caused by interference from spouses or children of the heirs, not the immediate heirs themselves. In any discussion with people who have been through family conflict during the division process, a story related to this type of interference usually comes up. This is often because someone – not an immediate heir –wants something. Usually there is no intent to harm relationships, yet a seemingly innocent request from someone closely related to one of the heirs may cause pressure that eventually erupts into conflict.

Rule # 1 - Only immediate heirs should be involved in the division process during the settlement of the estate. All others (spouses, children, grandchildren, in-laws and friends) should NOT participate, especially at the start of this process.

2. A second major cause of conflict comes from the early removal of items from a home (or estate) without the overall consent and approval of all other heirs. Sometimes one heir will simply go in ahead of time and take what he or she wants – perhaps spitefully – or perhaps intending to remove the item before anyone notices it is gone. However, usually this early removal is done innocently, by someone who thinks it is acceptable or has what he or she thinks is a good reason.

Rule # 2 – Don’t remove anything from the home or property before the official division process. Common sense may require that valuables be removed for safe-keeping; just make sure that all heirs are aware and agree.

3. Most experts agree that personality differences are the main cause of conflict during the division process of an estate settlement. Without understanding these differences, keeping the peace and avoiding conflict will be much more difficult to accomplish.

Rule # 3 – Try to gain an understanding of personality types of the other heirs involved. It is important to understand the basic traits of each person involved, and the best way in which to communicate with that personality style. By doing this, many conflicts that would otherwise develop from misunderstandings among heirs can be avoided.

Related articles:
Who's in Charge?
Family Rifts and Funerals
Burial Location
Family Reorganization After a Loss
Helping a Grieving Parent

Also by Angie Epting Morris:
Dividing Estates in Blended Families
Leaving Property to Your Children
What is an Estate Executor?
Should I List Who Gets What in a Will?
Who Needs a Will?

Angie Epting Morris Angie Epting Morris is the author of THE SETTLEMENT GAME: How to Settle an Estate Peacefully and Fairly, a step-by-step guide addressing the age-old problem of how to divide personal property without dividing the family. Her system is widely used and highly recommended by attorneys and financial planners. The book is available on her web site, as well as on

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Comment by Pamela Brown on April 9, 2012 at 9:22am

Death is interesting and has so many facets.  My dad passed on 4/28/11 and we are close to closing his estate.  With that, I'd like to respond briefly to a few comments below, as I'm just registering with this site:

140d2n....: death brings about all kinds of emotions and behaviors; its sad but true in most cases.  The deceased children should divide the parent's belongings first.  Then, if everyone agrees, give special items to special people.

E.R.  My dad had a Jaguar and Taurus.  As he considered purchasing the Jag, he questioned what would happen to the car if something happened to him.  I told him, 'don't worry about that 'cause you'll be dead' jokingly.... just get the car.  Worse case scenario, I can sell it back to the dealership.  Well, I never thought it would come to fruition.  With that, I had the dealership appraise it and worked with the same sells man.  Everything worked out, but it was hard emotionally.

Geri: the biological dad, in my opinion, is out of order.  If he wants additional money, he should pursue a law suit on his own.  I wouldn't waste any energy and time on him.   

140d2ngg85zel Comment by 140d2ngg85zel on July 7, 2011 at 9:23pm
My parents passed away last winter just seven weeks apart. My sister was executrix, and in my absence, divided my mom's jewelry. My sister-in-law took her wedding rings. When I protested, they came up with various reasons to justify what they did. My brother, whom I was always close to, say something so hurtful to me and I am unable to get past it. I barely speak to him now, and NEVER want to see his wife again. I am still grieving for my parents, and feel I have lost my siblings as well. My sister-in-law clearly broke rule #1, and made it her business to be a part of the initial process. I still am numb over this (she still has the ring) and feel I may never get past it.
Comment by E.R. on May 20, 2010 at 12:48pm
This may seem like a tacky little question, when we all are dealing with the huge issues of grief. But amid all this, I am struggling with the issue of what to do with my Dad's car. It's a nice car, and I guess it would sell for good money that would be part of his estate. But I just can't imagine selling Dad's car. I mean, I remember him driving it every time I look through the front window. And there also is no reason for me to keep it, since we are fixed just fine for transportation.

Should I just have it destroyed? Though that seems unthinkable too! My Dad loved that car, and it gave him so much pleasure to get around in it right up to nearly the end.

I'm stuck!
Comment by Dignity Memorial NC on April 12, 2010 at 12:50pm
Great advice on how to handle estates. We've also found that creating an end-of-life plan early on can help in the estate-settling process, and wrote about it on our blog:
It's important for people not to forget about the funeral arrangements when creating their estate plan, the two pieces go hand in hand with each other.
Comment by geri on July 31, 2009 at 9:19pm
hi my name is geri,i'm going thru a bizarre son passed away last year.from his death a wrongful death suit was developed .my sons birth father who never met my son,never wanted to meet him,it was his decision. my son was 23 yrs.old when he passed, in a car accident in which he was a passenger,when another car had hit the car my son was riding in,his birth father who did pay child support, of course thru my enforcement,has stated that he wants part of this settlement,the suit is based on the tragic loss of my son, my only child. the pain and suffering of his untimely death,is he entiled,i know he did not suffer in this loss.they never met.thank you

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