Attorney Gerald Condon recalls the time a family was gathered in his office to hear the reading of the father's will. One of the sisters whipped out a computer printout and read off a list of the gifts her parents had bestowed over the years on her brothers and sisters--a car, a business loan, a wedding.
"She had been keeping track and she was upset," Condon says. "Even though the will distributed the property equally to each child, she calculated she was out about $100,000. When she asked her siblings to equalize it, they said no, and to this day they no longer speak to each other."
Condon's mission is keeping the family, and its assets, together through life and death, using proper inheritance planning. He speaks and leads seminars and now, with his son and law partner Jeffrey Condon, has written a how-to book titled "Beyond the Grave: The Right Way and the Wrong Way of Leaving Money to Your Children (and Others)" (HarperBusiness).
The book, which the authors describe as a "compilation of common sense," focuses on the human side of estate planning. Among the chapters:
* "The Power Struggle: Or, If your children didn't share their toys, how will they co-manage their inherited property? "
* "Protecting the inheritance from your child's spouse: Or, My son-in-law has cash-register eyes . "
* "Will your surviving spouse divert the family money from your children? Or, Preventing your money from ending up with your spouse's bowling instructor."
Many parents protest that their children "love each other and would never argue over an inheritance," Gerald Condon says. His years of experience have taught him differently. Too many times, "something goes sour, leaving bitter family legacies," he says.
No matter how large or small the estate, no matter how close the family has been, something he calls the "inheritance gene" is activated and can lead to unpredictable conflicts.
"After you are gone, your children may still be your children," he says, "but they are also people dividing your money. And when money becomes involved, it is a whole new ball game."
This is the message the co-authors are delivering one morning to an overflow crowd at the Felicia Mahood Senior Center in Santa Monica.
The soft-spoken Gerald Condon talks of quarrels that tore families apart, of power struggles between brothers and sisters, of children seeking revenge on each other--all because of a will. And in most instances, the pain could have been averted, he says.
You also need to leave money in such a way that it will go on to your grandchildren if your child dies, he says. "Maybe your daughter, because she loves her husband, is going to add him to the title of her inheritance. She dies first and your money goes to your son-in-law's second wife's children."
"You can still leave your child the use of the money, but in a trust," explains Jeffrey Condon. "You can build a wall around it to protect it from other risks."
Money is not the only asset that raises problems. Clients come in fighting over personal property, such as who gets Mom's engagement ring, the authors say. They recommend that parents draw up a list of who gets what.
And the family home, despite the warm and fuzzy feelings it engenders, will inevitably have to be sold. "One of the children may want to live in it, but the others will want their money," Gerald Condon says.
Another major consideration should be protection of the surviving spouse, usually the wife. "There is a whole industry of people out there ready to take advantage of her--they can ingratiate themselves until she is totally dependent," Gerald Condon says, adding that sometimes elderly mothers can't even trust children who might be getting anxious for their inheritance. "Always use the trust department of a bank to protect her," he says.
Those are only some of the traps to watch out for. "We have categorized all the different issues that people usually never think about, but should, when they discuss their will with their lawyer," Jeffrey Condon says.
Sitting in their conference room at Condon, Condon & Festa in Santa Monica, the lawyers discuss their book, which they have been promoting on talk shows and drive-time radio programs this month.
The paneled room, with its floor-to-ceiling law books and leather chairs, is a formal setting. But over the years, as families gathered around the table after a parent's death, Gerald Condon has witnessed what he calls the "parade of horribles":
The surviving spouse who lost the family money to the last caretaker . . . the daughter who lost her inheritance to her husband in a divorce . . . the charity that used its inherited money to buy Cadillacs for its directors . . . the daughter who gave her entire inheritance to a cult . . . the son who was supposed to handle his disabled sibling's share, but who instead put it in his own pocket and walked away.
"Making a will used to be simple," Gerald Condon says. "When I started practicing, the economy was relatively stable and so was the family unit. Now we've suffered a significant recession and I've seen a lot of inherited wealth lost to creditors.
"As for the family, we live in a soap-opera world of multiple marriages and multiple children."
The book was a byproduct of his work with clients, he says. "I started to encounter interesting inheritance problems: What happens if you die and one of your children owes you money? I began to make folders on each problem and by the time Jeffrey got out of law school and joined the firm, he saw these folders and said 'That would be a great book.' "
The younger Condon spent more than three years sifting through the files and compiling material into 44 chapters that deal with every question from protecting a surviving spouse to leaving your money to a pet. "It's a true partnership," he says. "My father's ideas and my words."
There was some disagreement over the style of the book, Jeffrey Condon says. "My father would have liked it to be a little more lawyerlike than it is. My research told me that all the other books out there were lawyerlike, and written on the tax side, dealing with the mechanics of a living trust or probate or picking an executor.
"My job was to de-lawyer it and I did. I wrote it on an Ann Landers level because I have been reading Ann Landers since Day One."