1. Spell things out. Ask your parents to figure out who gets what, right down to the Christmas tree lights. Some people put stickers with names on the bottoms; others leave a list. Just as important, make sure your parents let everyone know — if Mom really liked you better and leaves you all the Waterford, wouldn’t you like your sister to be mad at her, not you?
2. Resist the temptation to avoid the depressing details. Big fights can erupt when planning the funeral — remember the brouhaha when Ted Williams died? — and spill over to estate issues. So ask your parents what kind of service they want, whether they want to be cremated or buried.
3. Don’t hesitate, mediate. If you sense battle lines being drawn, mediation and arbitration can provide a lower-cost alternative to taking one another to court. In mediation, a neutral third party helps all sides reach an agreement. Usually, mediation isn’t binding. In arbitration, a neutral third party listens to both sides and then comes up with an agreement; usually, it is binding. (The specifics of both mediation and arbitration are governed by state law and the Federal Arbitration Act.) Often, a judge will order warring siblings into mediation, and many wills contain a clause stipulating arbitration — say, if parents’ personal effects cannot be divided by the children within 30 days. In general, fees for either mediation or arbitration are significantly lower than those of lawyers in a lawsuit.
4. Draft a will with the personal touch. A heartfelt letter attached to a will can soothe the anger of grief-stricken children. In Illinois attorney Jim Nash’s favorite, a man gave his children and grandchildren a reading list of his favorite books. The University of Minnesota’s Marlene Stum knows of a case where the matriarch called her adult children around her and started holding up objects, explaining each one’s history and then asking who wanted it.
5. Make an end run around stubborn parents. If they refuse to talk about their plans, start paving the way for clear channels of communication with your siblings now. Hard as it may be, the initial "Have Mom and Dad ever talked to you about what they want to happen to their stuff when they die?" conversation is even more critical for siblings who don’t get along well.
6. Once you begin settling the estate, talk face-to-face. Nash is a big fan of Kinko’s videoconferencing for far-flung siblings. If everyone is in the loop, it’s harder to escalate to those tense "You threw the birdhouse I built in eighth grade in the trash" exchanges. Above all, advises mediator Olivia Boyce-Abel, be cautious with e-mail. "Something that sounds fine to you when you write it at midnight can come across very differently when your brother gets home from a hard day at the office."
7. Vow that this is one more time you won’t be like your mother. Call your lawyer and make sure your own will is current, and that your heirs know what is — and isn’t — coming to them.