Marriage and Family — 01 March 2005
The impact inheritance issues have on some family relationships

Money is often the source of strife in families. Differing views about money management is one cause of marital disharmony. People who lack sufficient funds experience great stress in their lives and those who amass financial assets are often plagued with fears about preserving it. However, none of these concerns create as much conflict as issues of inheritance and the distribution of money to heirs.

Tragically, even some well functioning families lose their civility, love and connection over matters of money. Why is money the source of so much discord?

One reason is that in inheritance many people equate the amount of the funds left to them with the deceased love for them. For example, grandmother died and left her home to her granddaughter and grandfather’s gun collection to her well to do grandson. The value of the house is many times greater than the value of the gun collection and the grandson felt deeply hurt. Though he realized that his sister needed the home and he cherished the gun collection, he was still outraged by the “unfairness” of this distribution. His deepest pain was born out of his belief that these choices demonstrated his grandmother’s greater love for his sister.

Some people are so devastated by their interpretation of the intent of the deceased, that they spend a lifetime resenting the late family member, regardless of the prior positive relationship. The blow is to their sense of value.

The ownership of money is so desirable that it creates for some lust and greed. Money improves one’s lifestyle, opens the door to certain comforts, choices, freedom and opportunities as well as ease of mind. For some, money also represents status, prestige, power and a membership in the club.
The desire for money is so intense for some that it impairs their judgment about proper conduct. Some family members have been known to start battling each other at the funeral home. There are situations in which loving siblings become bitter enemies at the point of discovering the content of a will.

Money is also equated with power. For certain individuals exerting their power and dominance is as important, or even more important, than money. For example, the eldest son, the executor of a trust, resorted to “hiring” his children to serve the trust as a way of gaining a greater share of the inheritance. He abused his power to gain a financial advantage. Some family members end up taking their cases to court and losing much of their inheritance to legal fees, just to establish their power and “righteous” position.

The issue of belonging also comes to play in some grieving families, particularly in blended ones. The new extended family of a second marriage that was once united may end up splintering upon the demise of one or both parents. The stepsiblings suddenly abandon their bond and may become divided and contentious. In those cases, camps are formed as the battle for personal significance rages. Some adult children claim to be the rightful heirs, while intending to disenfranchise others from the family. Their sense of entitlement empowers them to behave this way.

The survivors of a deceased loved one often experience intense emotions of loss, sadness, grief and anger. Though these emotions are normal, they may at times be inappropriately expressed. It is not uncommon to see old sibling or family issues surface at that time of grieving. These old problems may erupt in anger and be dealt with in an unhealthy way. The loss of a loved one is hard enough without the stresses of inheritance struggles, which often compound the grieving process.

It is important to state that there are many families who handle their grief and inheritance issues with grace and dignity. There are also times when the heirs show exceptional consideration for each other, deal with the deceased estate in a cooperative, loving and even self-sacrificing manner. At times, the death of a parent may even unite estranged siblings who come to appreciate their family connection as essential and valuable.

People who are in the process of deciding about the distribution of their assets may not be aware of the implications of their choices. They may have the best intentions but should be cautious about the issues of: sibling rivalry, money being equated with love, greed, resentments, family conflicts, power and entitlement issues and the possibility of lost family connection.
They may want to consider the following:

• It is wise to divide the assets equally among children to avoid feelings of rejection and sibling rivalry. If otherwise necessary, talk to the heirs, explain your thinking and consider their feedback.
• It is unwise and hurtful to use a will to settle disappointments or as punishment.
• The content of the will should not be kept as a secret, it only magnifies the shock upon it’s reading.
• Prior knowledge of the distribution of the inheritance is more likely to allow the heirs to deal with the grief and loss of the departed in a healthy way.
• Appoint one child as a trustee only if other children approve. In view of any reservation, an unrelated person, a bank official, or attorney may be a much better option.
• You may consider including a statement about your wish for all the heirs to preserve the love and respect for each other and maintain the family relationships.
• If this is a second marriage, it is wise to clarify to the children of the first marriage how and why you desire to continue to provide for your current wife. Regardless of their feelings about her, they need to honor your decency and caring for the woman you love.
• Give these matters great thought. If you set the tone correctly, your family members are more likely to grieve appropriately and continue to cherish you and their relationships with each other.

February 27, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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