Inheritance disputes: Avoiding the war when there’s a will

Unhappy couple meeting with attorney

The holidays are upon us. It's the time of the year when family moves from the shadows of a busy life to the foreground. That probably makes it as good a time as any to consider one of the most difficult topics to discuss pertaining to family and finances — the subject of inheritances. Nobody wants to talk about it because it is inextricably linked with, well, death. Someone has to die for an inheritance to come about, and none of us enjoys looking a loved one in the eye and saying, “Hey loved one, you are going to go the way of all flesh soon, so can we talk about what you are going to leave behind?”

How Family Disputes Over Inheritances Arise

When a dispute arises over an inheritance, it can help to recognize some of the issues that might be contributing to the problem developing between family members — and there are a number of things to consider:

1. It's all about stuff: A rich person, according to the story, was being buried one day. At the graveside, two employees were musing over how much the curmudgeon left behind. A third joined the conversation. “How much do you think old Scrooge left behind?” one asked.

“Everything,” replied the newcomer.

It is true: We can take none of our stuff with us when the day comes that we, too, go the way of all flesh. Therefore, a will inevitably is about stuff (including money). In a family, when the parent is gone, their affection (or lack of it) is gone, their words and actions are gone … all that remains is some stuff they left behind.

2. The thought process: Soap operas are built around the conflicts arising from inheritances (of stuff). We have all seen the media headlines about bratty heirs contesting the will of a wealthy parent. But it's not just the wealthy who spar over these things — many permanent family rifts are caused by siblings arguing over who should have received what.

About the only thing my wife had her eye on when her mother passed away was one of those ancient, dusty sets of Encyclopedia Britannica, one where the latest miracle discovery seemed to be the light bulb. It is a lovely antique, makes a bookshelf look really classy … but is otherwise useless in every other way. Still, it's what she wanted and, when that set showed up on her brother's bookshelf, well, let's just say that it took a few years for that sense of unfairness to heal. The funny thing is that neither of us would have ever cracked the pages of that musty set — and nor did her brother. It was, quite simply, the thought of it.

And that is one of the core problems with inheritances: “the thought of it.” When those kinds of thoughts begin involving money, or things with tangible value, conflict seemingly always follows.

3. Expectations about what is deserved: At the root of all this conflict is expectations. Heirs build up expectations as to what they think they ought to be receiving; and when another heir expects the same, there is conflict.

The human mind has this incredible ability to persuade itself that it deserves something it gets for free. Athletes and actors can look you straight in the eye and tell you they actually deserve $10 million a year because they work hard, while a guy digging ditches makes minimum wage and struggles to get a job for a full 40 hours every week. Even lottery winners often persuade themselves that they really deserved that $300 million jackpot.

Heirs that quarrel over an inheritance are not much different. Almost every heir proves to be quite adept at explaining why they deserve what they think should be theirs. However, the fact of the matter is that heirs do nothing to deserve what they are about to receive. Their parents (or other relatives) did all the hard work, made all the right decisions and endured the frugality it took to actually have something to leave behind.

4. Surrogate appreciation: Every child has a need to feel appreciated, even when they are in their 40s or 50s. Actions, as we know, speak louder than words, and many kids look at the provisions of a will as the final expression of appreciation by the parent or whoever is leaving the stuff. Therefore, heirs read more into the provisions of a will than simply the allocation of the stuff.

When heirs read more into the provisions of a will than simply how much free stuff they receive, expectations tend to become magnified and lead to conflicts.

5. General temperaments: My mother passed away from cancer about two years ago, leaving everything to my half-sister and myself. My sister is outgoing-bold and had no problem discussing the provisions of the will with my mother. (“Hey, Mom, you're going to kick the bucket soon — so what's in the will?”) I, on the other hand, am an introvert geek and would die before talking about stuff like that.

The difference is simply our temperaments. In situations like that, it's not uncommon for the bold sibling(s) to receive more, for no other reason than that they simply wear down the parents. When that happens, it is easy for the quiet siblings to feel slighted in the disbursement of the stuff. (In our case, that didn't happen because it was split down the middle.)

Furthermore, people process pain differently. If a parent has a long illness, everyone has time to pre-process at least part of their grief. However, when a death comes suddenly, the grief is acute. Then when the will gets announced, grief colors the perception of the provisions among the heirs to an even greater degree.

How to Avoid the War

As with all potential conflicts, it is possible to avoid the backdraft of a will, but it is not always easy.

1. Communicate: Death is a tough topic to deal with, there is no way around that. However, death is inevitable, as we all know. It is better for all concerned to have clarification about the provisions of a will before any parent passes. (Implicit in this, of course, is the need for everyone to actually have a will, but that is another topic.) The earlier this is done (and the further from the actual death event) the better.

Spelling out everything ahead of time will eliminate any surprises and defuse most of the conflicts. It probably will also give the soon-to-depart ones peace of mind that their passing will not create an unnecessary mess of problems.

2. Acknowledge it is only stuff: It sounds obvious, but it helps for all heirs to acknowledge that the contents of a will involves only stuff. Our lives do not revolve around stuff. After all, we too will be leaving it all when it's our turn to face the other inevitable fact of life (i.e., not taxes).

Furthermore, it helps for every heir to acknowledge that whatever stuff they receive will leave them better off than before. Whether it is more than they expected or less, it still represents an increase.

3. Get over the unfairness: Where there is a will, there is an unfairness … at least in the eye of most heirs. Because every person is so accomplished at justifying why they are entitled to whatever they think should be theirs, it helps to articulate the unfairness soon and do the only thing that will bring happiness: Get over it.

My sister stayed with my mom during her last two years of sickness, so she felt entitled to more. However, she received 10 times more than I did during our parents' lifetimes because she is so vocal in demanding everything. I felt a bit entitled to a “make-up” in the will. Conflict. However, our parents made the provisions of the will clear ahead of time, so we both had time to get over our feelings of entitlement. That ended up being a good idea.

4. Prepare for the unforeseen: Even with the best paid plans of mice and men, man's greed always lurks in the background when free stuff is being handed out. After my wife and I said our good-byes to my mom, my sister managed to get a lawyer to sneak in a last-minute amendment to the will to give her exclusive use of our parents' house for five years. (And then she left it to the lawyer to explain that development to me after she skipped out.)

Wow, talk about unforeseen. I was not prepared for that and did not react well. I wasn't any worse off than before my parents passed, but it was that thought-of-it thing. I should have been prepared for the unforeseen. Fortunately, as it turned out, the deeds office declared that amendment illegal when the executor attempted the transfer, which took the will back to its original provisions. As you read this, my sister and I will hopefully be resolving the inheritance once and for all.

Any time free stuff is handed out, human greed has the potential to awaken the ugly in us. When the free stuff handout is accompanied by emotional ties and baggage, it has the potential to get even worse. The key to success is to communicate openly, acknowledge it is only stuff (more than we had before) and that there is more to happiness than stuff.

How can families handle disputes over an inheritance? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

More about...Planning, Psychology

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