Death, Wealth, and the Psychological Anatomy of a Family Dispute

-Darren T. Case

From the fifteenth century dispute over the succession to the British throne ultimately won by Queen Elizabeth I over her familial rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, to the more recent dispute amongst the Koch children fighting over their father’s $5.6 billion dollar fortune, death and disputes over a family’s wealth have been a reoccurring story for centuries. The public is fascinated by families fighting over the wealth of the deceased.

Recently it seemed it was only hours after the death of Prince that multiple articles had been published forecasting the potential family members set to litigate over the purple rain wealth. While the public seemingly cannot get enough of these types of legal battles, the embarrassed families involved would prefer to not air their dirty laundry. Especially considering that the media tends to focus on the perceived greed of the siblings over the inheritance, but as intimately known by the family members involved, such would not even come close to explaining the entire story. Often never realized is the root cause of the vicious and costly disputes, which is the deep-seated psychological issues amongst family members that have been developing for quite some time.

Family issues are ripe to develop during childhood. According to a 1996 study at Penn State University, 33% of a child’s free time is devoted to their siblings by age 11. This certainly provides sufficient time for the sibling rivalries and other childhood issues to fester over the years, but many might be surprised to learn that root cause of these issues might actually be due to the order in which the children were born. The earliest studies on the subject of birth order impacting a child’s temperament are believed to be those of Austrian psychotherapist, Alfred W. Adler from the early twentieth century. Adler theorized that the personality of a child is largely dictated by birth order, arguing that firstborn children are more achievement oriented, with a second-born child being competitive and ambitious, and later-born children being sociable but dependent.

An extensive number of studies spawned from Adler’s work, many of which demonstrate advantages of being the firstborn child. Firstborn children tend to have a higher IQ and are more likely to annually earn at least $100,000 more than their siblings, but such will not prevent the sense of betrayal felt when the firstborn’s parents bring home a newborn baby receiving the bulk of attention. Middle children, most likely to receive the least amount of attention and quality time with parents, may unknowingly harbor resentment towards their older and younger siblings believing the parents did not love him or her as much. Many last-born children are seen by their siblings as being spoiled or treated much more leniently by parents, also causing consternation in the family unit.

While many may assume that these issues simply go away upon the children growing up, many studies illustrate that early childhood experiences can continue to influence individuals into adulthood. New York psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, Ph.D. details just that in her book Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret, stating that “Rivalry, competition and anxiety about your place in your parents’ affections… [breed] rancor that haunts siblings all their lives and occurs in each phase of adulthood–work, marriage, parenthood, caring for aging parents, and eventually, settling that perpetual minefield, the estate.” Thus, these childhood issues very well could be the psychological seed planted that causes the legal battles following the death of a parent. But what, if anything, have the families been doing in an attempt to avoid these humiliating public disputes and the collateral damage to the family’s wealth?

Most affluent families are certainly not taking the ostrich approach by simply sticking their head in the sand and ignoring the warning signs. Parents often take the initial precautions of setting up their estate plan, although still far too few families do; approximately 64% of the U.S. population is currently without an estate plan based upon recent polling. This is certainly a critical step in the process, but it would be naïve for parents to believe that the estate plan will prevent any and all disputes. Even the most talented and well-respected attorneys will experience the illogical and unreasonable actions by grieving children when the estate plan is brilliantly written.

For parents wishing to do more than just setting up the estate plan and keeping their fingers-crossed, family meetings are often set up. The hope and purpose of holding the family meeting is to provide an open dialogue about the family’s wealth and what the parents choose to do with it following their death. The concept of the family meetings to discuss estate planning and wealth is certainly not a new concept. Wealthier families and their advisors have been holding family meetings for quite some time, with a variety of successes and failures, but commonly from a tax and financial perspective alone. These financial discussions are unquestionably necessary, for the conversation about money (i.e., inheritance) can be one of the most difficult topics anyone can have, but it is debatable whether these conversations will prevent the shocking family disputes that spill into our court systems following the death of the surviving parent.

Many times the issues amongst siblings run much deeper than the disputes over money.  

It is not that the parents or their estate planning attorney do not recognize that these issues exist amongst the children. The potential problem with this attorney-client setting is that an interdisciplinary approach of involving the field of psychology in the estate planning process is not being recognized by the parties involved. While an attorney is well-experienced with post-mortem family squabbles, the attorney’s de facto degree in psychology or therapy is a far cry from involving a licensed professional to solve the deep-seated issues in the underlying the estate plan. The difficulty, however, is finding a workable setting for the family, the attorney, and the licensed professional involved, all while delicately navigating both the attorney-client and physician-patient privileges.

The extent of using a psychologist or therapist during the estate planning process is certainly up to the parents. So long as the estate plan is revocable, it would be wise to get it in place while arranging the meetings with the medically licensed professionals. It may also be prudent for the parents to meet with the psychologist or therapist on their own at first, seeking recommendations as to how to address sibling rivalries and other issues prior to any family meeting, but understanding that the professional’s recommendations may be limited in scope or incomplete without involvement of the children. Regardless of children involvement, consideration of having the estate planning attorney engage in preliminarily discussions with the psychologist or therapist may also be advisable.

This more unique interdisciplinary approach to the estate planning process certainly does not guarantee that any and all post-mortem disputes will be avoided.  The deep-seated issues, even with psychological assistance, may still surface in a volatile manner when the adult children are once again thrust together in a substantially emotional situation involving the death of a parent. However, many families would welcome additional recommendations or options available for avoiding the costly and embarrassing litigation battles over estates and trusts.

This more unique inter-disciplinary approach to the estate planning process may not only lead to less family disputes being subjected to the public’s fascination with death and wealth, but it may also allow the parents to comfortably state that they did everything they could for the children that they brought into this world, who inevitably will be close by their side upon their death. And that may ultimately be the effort the family is looking for in managing their private affairs while alive.

Published by Meg Duke

💪🏼 🍕 Fitness + Pizza —> It’s all about balance! 🧠 Licensed Psychotherapist 👋🏼 Get info on becoming my Client or a Coach!

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