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Thanksgiving Ideal for Family Succession Talks

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 03 October 2000 00:00

This weekend, while most Canadians are thinking about family get-togethers and turkey dinners, many Canadians will also be preoccupied with closing up the cottage for the winter. Thanksgiving Day (this year it is early - October 9) will see many cottagers concentrating on the physical tasks of shutting off the water, hauling out the dock and boarding up the windows without a thought to one of the biggest problems with cottages.

A cottage is more than a building, a beach or a dock. It houses powerful, indelible personal memories. That's what makes it a problem.

"People come to my office and say, ‘I want so-and-so to inherit this piece of furniture and I want my kids to share my money. Now what in heck do I do with the cottage?'"said lawyer and cottage owner Judith Turner-Macbeth from Barrie, Ontario. Although she did not want to discuss her personal experience with a cottage inheritance gone sour, she feels that her first-hand knowledge helps her council clients with their estate planning.

"Decisions about who gets the cottage are so emotional," she said. "They say, ‘I don't want to be part of that discussion and I don't want to be part of the emotional debate that will ensue.' But failing to talk to family is sewing the seeds of dissension."

Problems can arise when two or more of the children want to inherit the cottage. Threatened with the loss of a treasured part of their lives, unresolved conflicts may bubble up.

"If there is a terrible amount of family infighting, different goals and differing abilities to pay for the cottage, things may never be resolved," said Ms. Turner-Macbeth. "I have had clients who feel the whole family will not be able to agree. The parents sell the cottage on the open market because the whole thing is so emotional and difficult."

In the other extreme, one client has decided to leave her cottage to one of her three children and let that child battle things out with the other two later.

Some cottage owners take a seemingly less drastic approach. They leave the cottage to everyone.

"The cottage is a very important part of me and my grown-up children. They will have to decide what to do with it when I am gone," said Barbara Funston, who plans to leave the Peterborough area cottage that she has owned for 39 years to her four children.

Handing the cottage down from one generation to the next goes more smoothly when the lines of communication are kept open.

"Those that have talked to their children have come back and told me they were pleased they did," said Ms. Turner-Macbeth. "Most people are surprised. What kids want is not what their parents thought they would want. It may be that not all the children want the cottage either because they cannot see using it much, being able to afford it or because they don't think they can get along in a shared relationship with the rest of the family."

As you share Thanksgiving dinner or during the long drive back from Lake Muskoka or wherever those warm memories are created, give some thought to who is going to inherit your cottage. Why not be sure your heirs aren't saddled with a problem but rather giving thanks for a wonderful legacy.

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PJ Wade

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