Why Families Fight Over Inheritance

October 16, 2011
Updated on August 22, 2023
Angry family members arguing in attorney office over inheritance.

When it comes to inheritance, families can sometimes find themselves behaving terribly. People who are normally thoughtful and connected with their emotions may transform into bickering children. Even when conflict isn't overt, nearly every family seems to have some tension percolating beneath the surface when facing inheritance issues.

Family Conflict Amid Loss

What appears to be greed and pettiness, however, are really symptoms of survivors’ struggle to feel loved and important. In confronting a recent loss, family members might fight over money, a father's watch, or a mother's wedding ring. They often are not fighting about the assets themselves. What it really comes down to is what those assets symbolize: importance, love, security, self-esteem, and connection.

The old adage “Money makes people do funny things” doesn’t do justice to the real root causes of family conflict. Money is how people keep score in the fight for the intangibles of love and approval. 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 started when non-family got involved. “Everything changed when Dad remarried,” or “We all got along until my brother-in-law started calling the shots.”

Inheritance conflict typically doesn’t come out of the blue. It is an extension of long-term relationship problems that can resurface when a loved one dies. What drives people to fight their own family members over a loved one’s possessions, if it's not just about greed?

5 Reasons Behind the Family Fight Over Inheritance

There are five basic reasons why families fight in matters of inheritance:

  1. First, humans are genetically predisposed to competition and conflict.
  2. Our psychological sense of self is intertwined with the approval that an inheritance represents, especially when the decedent is a parent.
  3. Third, we are genetically hardwired to be on the lookout for exclusion, sometimes finding it when it doesn’t exist.
  4. Fourth, families fight because the death of a loved one activates the death anxieties of those left behind.
  5. In some cases, a member of the family may have a partial or full-blown personality disorder. This may lead them to distort and escalate natural family rivalries into personal and legal battles.

These sources of family conflict are not mutually exclusive. Many times, some combination of the five elements present themselves in a combustible cocktail of family rivalry and conflict.

The Role of an Estate Planning Attorney

Despite the tensions and rivalries that naturally exist in all families, family conflict is not inevitable.

Estate planning attorneys can help families overcome the natural tensions that tend to pull them apart. They can counsel their clients on the pitfalls of various courses of action and dissuade them from provisions that are punitive. Estate planners can also encourage clients to mend fences while family members are still alive. All of this helps to promote planning that leaves a legacy of love.

More than just scriveners, estate planning counsel can advise clients on what is fair and customary. Attorneys use their legal and personal skills to document their clients' wishes while being sensitive to the needs of those left behind.

Special care must be taken to not upset long-held roles when allocating personal and financial assets and in appointing fiduciaries. In addition, estate planners can protect their clients from predators from within the family who may seek to manipulate and abuse. In short, estate planning attorneys can make a difference. For their part, clients serve as skilled teachers. They demonstrate the importance of family, the transience of money and things, and the shortness of life.

About the author

P. Mark Accettura is a practicing elder law attorney in Michigan with more than 30 years of experience. He is the author of several books. including Blood & Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance And What To Do About It.

Inheritance, Children
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