Those of us who practice in the area of estate planning are regularly confronted with families behaving at their worst. People who are normally thoughtful and connected with their emotions revert to fighting children, figuratively, sometimes literally, scratching, punching and pulling each other’s hair. Even where there is no overt conflict, it seems that nearly every family has some amount of tension percolating just beneath the surface as they address family inheritance issues.
Stories of families in conflict at the death of a loved one are regular fodder in the media. It is easy to mock them; they look ridiculous, and it all seems so petty. We wonder why people just can’t get along. But, after some study, I have learned that what appears as greed and pettiness are really symptoms of survivors’ struggle to feel loved and important. The fight for money and things — Dad’s watch, Mom’s wedding ring — is not about the object or the money itself, but about what they symbolize: importance, love, security, self-esteem, connectedness and immortality.
The old adage that “money makes people do funny things” doesn’t do justice to the real problems and root causes of family conflict. Money is not the core reason that families fight; money is how we keep score in the fight for the intangibles of love, approval, and primordial survival. Money and possessions also help allay the fears of those left behind. When families fight, greed is rarely the principal motive.
The combatants can always trace their problems back several years, if not all the way back to childhood. For some, the trouble starts with the involvement of nonfamily: “Everything changed when dad remarried,” or “We all got along until my brother-in-law started calling the shots.” It is clear that inheritance conflict doesn’t come out of the blue; it is a continuation of long-term relationship problems that resurface upon the illness or death of a loved one. And it’s not just about money or greed; it’s about more, much more. But what is it that so often drives people to wage war against their own flesh and blood over a loved one’s estate?
There are five basic reasons why families fight in matters of inheritance. First, humans are genetically predisposed to competition and conflict. Second, our psychological sense of self is intertwined with the approval that an inheritance represents, especially when the decedent is a parent. Third, we are genetically hardwired to be on the lookout for exclusion, sometimes finding it when it doesn’t exist. Fourth, families fight because the death of a loved one activates the death anxieties of those left behind. And finally, in some cases, one or more members of a family has a partial or full-blown personality disorder that causes them to distort and escalate natural family rivalries into personal and legal battles. These sources of family conflict are not mutually exclusive; in most cases, some combination of the five elements present themselves in a combustible cocktail of family rivalry and conflict.
A significant number of inheritance disputes also involve testators and beneficiaries who come from dysfunctional families, are mentally ill or addicted, or suffer from one or more of the four Cluster B personality disorders as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV): antisocial, borderline, histrionic or narcissistic.
Despite the tensions and rivalries that naturally exist in all families, family conflict is not inevitable. As family counselors, we can help families overcome the natural tensions that tend to pull them apart in order to preserve their most valuable asset: family itself. We can counsel our clients on the pitfalls of various courses of action, dissuade them from provisions that are punitive, encourage them to mend fences while family members are still alive, and promote planning that leaves a legacy of love.