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Families Fighting Over an Inheritance

Family Battles Over Inheritances - And Ways to Avoid Them

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Rhode Island Probate
Attorney RJ Connelly III

"One of the most distressing things I see as an elder law attorney is a family squabble over an inheritance," said professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "And many times, it is not about money and valuables. It's often over items of little financial value but tremendous emotional meaning. In cases like this, it makes settling the estate promptly extremely difficult, and ultimately, extremely costly."


"Many will say that parents who divide an estate equally among the children is the smart thing to do, but again, equality isn't always fair, and siblings will still battle. Sometimes, one sibling may have cared for an ill parent because another child lived out of state. The caretaking child is left more in the will to compensate for this act. Still, without explaining why this occurs or using vague language in the will, it is a setup for a fight that could destroy that family, something the decedent would never have wanted," said Attorney Connelly.


"When I talk about vague language, more than once I have seen a will stating that one child will get the antiques, but what is an antique? What may qualify as an 'antique' in the eyes of the owner may not truly be an antique in the eyes of a professional collector, so that one word can set up years of family strife," said Attorney Connelly.


"In one situation, a family agreed to take items from an estate and sell the rest through an auction," stated Attorney Connelly. "But the main issue, in this case, came about because of real estate. Three siblings were locked in a battle over the property that ended up in court. An agreement was finally reached when all agreed to allow one of the sisters to purchase the real estate at fair market value. Although this ended the legal wrangling, the family relationships never recovered."


When It's Not About Money

Some families are willing to fight, long and hard, despite the legal costs involved when distributing family heirlooms such as photos, clothing, furniture, etc. "When this happens, it's not about the financial value of the items but the underlying familial resentments that are in place," said Attorney Connelly. "It's really about the unfinished business of family dysfunction, which plays itself out during the probate process, manifesting as appearing greedy or just plain argumentative behaviors."


"I had one client tell me it wasn't about the item being left to them but rather about what 'feelings' that item represented. The unspoken resentment was that the client felt less loved and devalued by not getting the item. This simple act ended up causing a family feud that was still boiling years later when the estate was finally closed. This battle cost tens of thousands of additional dollars in legal bills with no real resolution."


Rhode Island Probate
Family battles are often about feelings and not money

In the book “Blood and Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritances and What to Do About It", author Mark Accettura, who has over 30 years of experience in research in the fields of evolutionary psychology, gerontology, psychiatry, and neuropsychology, advanced the following theories on why family battles occur. In his work, he finds that greed does not motivate such battles. He put forth five reasons why he thinks such disputes occur:

  1. One or more family members have a partial or full-blown personality disorder that causes them to distort and escalate natural family rivalries into personal and legal battles.

  2. Our psychological sense of self is intertwined with the approval that inheritance tends to represent, especially if the descendent is a parent.

  3. Humans are genetically predisposed to competition and conflict.

  4. We are genetically hardwired to be on the lookout for exclusion, sometimes finding it where it doesn’t exist.

  5. Families fight because the death of a loved one activates the death anxieties of those left behind.

Avoiding These Battles

"There are simple ways to avoid these battles, and that's to have an estate plan in place and make sure it's reviewed and updated, if necessary, since life circumstances may change," said Attorney Connelly. "For instance, one family we worked with put together a plan, but several years later, one of the beneficiaries developed a substance abuse disorder. Obviously, leaving a large amount of money to that person could have been disastrous and even deadly when considering the risk of an overdose. When the parents reviewed the plan, they put the money for this family member in a trust that allowed a non-family member trustee to manage the money."


Here are some ways to reduce the chance of conflict in the family:

  • Make sure a will is in place - If familial rivalries are brewing, consult an estate planning professional before the battles begin. If things begin to disintegrate before a professional becomes involved, the financial and emotional costs could be extremely high.

  • Discuss issues before passing - If a will does exist and it spells out what money the beneficiaries will receive, that's half the battle. But family members are increasingly battling over the small things - vases, photos, paintings, often things of little financial worth but significant emotional meaning. As we stated earlier, just writing that "all the antique paintings" will go to one sibling is too vague and open to multiple interpretations as to what an antique is. It is suggested that to avoid family stress, name specific items that will go to the siblings.

  • Take photos - With the cell phone technology today, it's simple to take photos of items and list who will get these items. In most cases, photos eliminate the individual interpretation of what the item is to be given. Reviewing it with the beneficiaries before death limits surprises upon the loved one's passing.

  • Hire a professional - Attempting to divide property without a neutral third party is a recipe for disaster and will undoubtedly lead to battles among family members.

Rhode Island Probate
Did your loved one really want a judge to make family decisions?

Planning is Key

"Our society still struggles with having open and honest conversations about death," stated Attorney Connelly. "But communicating your intentions and what's expected of your beneficiaries after your death reduces any unwelcome surprises by your loved ones -- and keeping the promises you made is critical. Never change your will on your deathbed because this can easily be challenged in court."


"For the children who fear being left out of the will or may not receive the property they want, a conversation should be held with the parent before death. These conversations lead to mutual understanding for all parties involved and avoid leaving the judge as the final arbitrator."

Rhode Island Probate

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