Four things you can do to avoid an estate dispute

While every family is unique, it's often possible to predict -- and prevent -- disputes among your heirs.

Whether your estate is big or small, there are some actions you can take that will minimize the possibility of a family dispute after you are gone.

1. Get your estate plan established.

While you're still healthy and of sound mind, get a will drawn up and decide who you want to handle your affairs if you aren't able to. Your heirs may be less likely to challenge a will that was crafted well before you were failing in body or mind.

2. Identify the person you want to be in charge of your affairs.

When you name the executor whom you want to act on your behalf for financial or medical decisions, decide why you are choosing that person. Maybe you want your oldest child because you feel that's proper. Maybe you want the child who lives closest to you because they are the most involved in your life. Whatever the reason, let your family know the reasons for your choice so that there's no question about your wishes.

3. Divide the heirlooms as fairly as possible.

Your adult children may fight hardest about family heirlooms -- even if they aren't valuable. Try to find out what items hold special memories or significance to each of your children and allocate them accordingly. If that isn't possible, decide on a method that can be used for people to choose what they want and make sure that you communicate the plan to your heirs. If possible, enlist them in the process of deciding how the items will be divided.

4. Get professional assistance.

Do-it-yourself estate plans are widely available, but they are often easily challenged. When you use an attorney to prepare your will, they can offer reassurance to your heirs that there was no undue influence by any beneficiary involved in the process.

Ultimately, you can't control everything that will happen after your death. If your heirs don't get along, they may still end up at odds. However, taking these steps makes it less likely that anything serious will erupt over your estate.

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