the house Steinbeck called “my little fishing place,” about a mile out of town, is part of a long-running and bitter family estate battle, pitting the surviving sister of the author’s third wife, Elaine, against his oldest son and a granddaughter.

The sad tales of families squabbling over an inheritance (or disinheritance) oftentimes make public even the most intensively private of lives. Such is the case with John Steinbeck, and his family’s prolonged fight over a small piece of property he used to call his “little fishing place.” It’s just a little house at the end of a point jutting into a cove of Noyac Bay in Sag Harbor, NY. It’s just a writer’s shack, really, where Steinbeck wrote “Travels with Charley,” and other works.

While alive, he worked to keep the place private. He even hand-stenciled a sign warning, “Trespassers Will Be Eaten.” But, his heirs have taken the little house and made a public spectacle of it. You can read the sad story online at the New York Times.

Of course, the Steinbeck heirs are not unique.  Intra-family feuds are rather common these days following the death of a family member. That fact was confirmed in a survey conducted by the AARP/Scudder Investment Program of Americans age 50 and over. According to the survey, 20 percent of the respondents cited problems among surviving family members due to their inheritance, or lack thereof. More often than not, these feuds are over tangible personal property and family business interests.

So, how do you protect your legacy and preserve family harmony? Unfortunately, the truth is that even the best estate planning cannot prevent every instance of unreasonable behavior among heirs. But there are things you can do now, with proper legal planning and good communication, to avoid problems later on.

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