Ethan R. Okura
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

I left the New York City, big law-firm life back in 2005 to come home to Hawai‘i and start specializing in estate planning law. This was just one year after my father had written this article below, which I will share with you today. My father, Sanford K. Okura, graduated from Stanford University Law School in 1976, and founded the Okura & Associates law firm in 1982. I am so grateful for the way he raised me and all of my seven siblings — to always love and support each other, whether through difficult times or happy times.

 Now that I am an experienced estate planning attorney of 16 years, I can confirm first-hand that this advice he gave to me those many years ago is still spot on, and that nothing is more important than love, family, reconciliation, harmony, forgiveness and ho‘oponopono. Without further ado, here is Sanford’s wisdom:

As an estate planning specialist, I help parents set up wills and trusts to benefit their children. When parents die, children come to me for help in settling their parents’ estate. One of the saddest things I see is children fighting with each other after a parent dies. Usually fighting is over money or property.

When children fight with each other after a parents’ death, it is usually because one child ends up with more property than the others. Here is what sometimes happens. When the parents are younger and healthy, they make a will or trust which will give everything to the children equally when they die. The parents grow old. One of them dies. The other parent is no longer able to live alone. That parent goes to live with one of the children, or the child moves into the parent’s home to provide care. The parent then changes the legal documents so that the property goes to that one child. The parent sometimes does this out of gratitude to the child for taking care of them. Sometimes the child pressures the parent into giving the property. The same thing happens with bank accounts. 

When the parent dies, suddenly the other children discover that instead of all the children getting equal shares as they expected, the child who was living with the parent gets more. The children who are left out feel cheated and get angry. The child who got more feels justified because of the hard work and sacrifice in taking care of an aged parent. That child feels that the others didn’t do their share of caring for the parent and don’t deserve an inheritance. There are harsh words and accusations. The family is split forever. Sometimes they never talk to each other again, for the rest of their lives.

Often the next generation is affected. Because brothers and sisters have hard feelings for each other, they do not visit each other. Their children, who are cousins, don’t get to see each other, and are not close.

As parents, we want our children to get along with each other. We want them to care for each other and look out for each other’s needs after we are gone. We do not want to go to our grave knowing that our children will argue and fight and perhaps never talk to each other again.

What can we as parents do to avoid this kind of family fighting? The first thing we can do is to teach the children to get along. The best time to do this is when they are young and living at home, but even after they are adults, we as parents can have family reunions and gather the children and grandchildren together for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. If the adult children do not get along very well, we can talk to them and encourage them to talk to each other to work out their differences.

The other thing we can do is to not have surprises in our estate plan. As a general rule, I believe it is a good idea for parents to share with their children what the will or trust says. I encourage parents to bring one or more of their children with them to my office to discuss the plan, so that children can understand clearly what the parents’ wishes are.

After the legal documents are prepared, it is good for children to have a copy. If any changes are made, it is good if all the children know about it. Above all, if one of the children is going to inherit more than the others, it is important for the parents to explain to the other children why this decision was made, and to let them express their feelings so that there are no surprises later.

There are some situations in which the parents do not want one or more of the children to know the details of the estate plan. That is fine, and the parents have the absolute right to share or to withhold information. However, unless there are special circumstances in your family, if at all possible, let estate planning be a family affair so that children support each other instead of fighting at your funeral.

Ethan R. Okura received his JD from Columbia University in 2002. He specializes in Estate Planning to protect assets from nursing-home costs, probate, estate taxes and creditors.

This column is for general information only and is not tax or legal advice.  The facts of your case may change the advice given. Do not rely on the information in this column without consulting an estate-planning specialist.

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