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.

Stronger Family Ties Linked to Longer Life

-Janice Wood

For older adults, having more or closer family members decreases the likelihood of death, according to a new study.

But the study, presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), found that having a larger or closer group of friends does not impact that likelihood.

“We found that older individuals who had more family in their network, as well as older people who were closer with their family were less likely to die,” said James Iveniuk, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “No such associations were observed for number of or closeness to friends.”

For the study, researchers used nationally representative data from the 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 survey waves of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), to investigate which aspects of social networks are most important for postponing mortality.

Mortality of wave one respondents, who were 57 to 85 years old, was assessed at wave two.

In the first wave, these older adults were asked to list up to five of their closest confidants, describe in detail the nature of each relationship, and indicate how close they felt to each person. Excluding spouses, the average number of close confidants named was 2.91, and most older adults perceived high levels of support from their social contacts, the researchers reported.

Most of the respondents were married, in good physical health, and reported not being very lonely, the researchers added.

Older adults who reported feeling “extremely close” on average to the non-spousal family members they listed as among their closest confidants had about a six percent risk of mortality within the next five years. That figure is compared to approximately a 14 percent risk of mortality among those who reported feeling “not very close” to the family members they listed, according to Iveniuk and co-author L. Philip Schumm, Ph.D., a senior biostatician at the University of Chicago.

The study also found that respondents who listed more non-spousal family members in their network — no matter how close — had lower odds of death compared to those who listed fewer family members.

“Regardless of the emotional content of a connection, simply having a social relationship with another person may have benefits for longevity,” Iveniuk said.

Iveniuk said he was surprised that feeling closer to one’s family members and having more relatives as confidants decreased the risk of death for older adults, but that the same was not true of relationships with friends.

“Because you can choose your friends, you might, therefore, expect that relationships with friends would be more important for mortality, since you might be better able to customize your friend network to meet your specific needs,” Iveniuk said.

“But that account isn’t supported by the data — it is the people who in some sense you cannot choose, and who also have little choice about choosing you, who seem to provide the greatest benefit to longevity.”

Besides comparing friendships to relationships with family members, the study examined the characteristics of social networks in general and their association with mortality.

The four factors most consistently associated with reduced mortality risk were:

  1. being married;
  2. a larger network size;
  3. greater participation in social organizations, and
  4. feeling closer to one’s confidants.

All four factors mattered to about the same degree, according to the researchers.

Factors found to be less important included time with confidants, access to social support, and feelings of loneliness.

“I expected the association between participation in social organizations and mortality to diminish in size considerably once we controlled for other aspects of peoples’ social worlds, but that didn’t happen,” Iveniuk said.

Interestingly, marriage was found to have positive effects on longevity, regardless of the quality of the marriage.

“We observed no association between measures of support from the spouse and mortality, indicating that the presence of a marital bond may be more important for longevity than certain aspects of the bond itself,” Iveniuk said.

The findings underscore the importance of family relationships for longevity, according to Iveniuk.

“Going back to the very first sociological theorists, many different thinkers have noted that there is some kind of special significance that people attribute to family ties, leading people to stay close to and support people who wouldn’t necessarily be individuals that they would associate with if they had the choice,” Iveniuk said.

Source: American Sociological Association

Income Inequality Linked to Millennials Having Babies Before Marriage

-Janice Wood

New research finds that rising income inequality, and a scarcity of certain types of jobs, are key reasons many young Americans are having babies before getting married.

A study led by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Dr. Andrew J. Cherlin traces how the income gap affects individual choices about starting a family.

The study concludes that the greater the income inequality in an area, the less likely young men and women are to marry before having a first child.

“Does income inequality affect a young adult’s decision about getting married and starting a family?” asked Cherlin, the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy in the Krieger School of Arts and Science. “We think the answer is ‘Yes’ for those who don’t graduate from college.”

“Places with higher income inequality have fewer good jobs for those young adults,” he explained. “They don’t foresee ever having the kinds of well-paying careers that could support a marriage and a family. But they are unwilling to forgo having children. So with good jobs in limited supply and successful marriage looking unlikely, young women and men without college degrees may go ahead and have a child without marrying first.”

The researchers found that areas with high levels of income inequality have a shortage of jobs available in the middle of the job market. These are jobs available to people without college degrees that pay wages that would keep a family out of poverty, such factory work, office clerks, and security guards.

Without access to this sort of work, young men can’t make an adequate living. They don’t see themselves as good marriage material, and their partners agree, the researchers note.

Couples like this might live together and have a child, but they are reluctant to make the long-term commitment to marriage, according to Cherlin.

The researchers studied 9,000 young people of the generation known as millennials, from 1997 when they were 12 to 16 years old, until 2011, when they were 26 to 31. By the end of the study, 53 percent of the women and 41 percent of the men reported having had at least one child — and 59 percent of those births occurred outside of marriage. Most of the first children born outside of marriage were to women and men who didn’t graduate from college.

The researchers then matched that information about birth and marriage with census data on income and employment. They found that childless unmarried men and women who lived in counties with greater household income inequality and fewer middle market jobs available were less likely to marry before having a child.

According to the study’s findings, women who lived in an area with high inequality had 15 to 27 percent lower odds of marrying before having a first child than did women who lived in an area with low inequality.

“For many young adults, having a child is still one of the most satisfying experiences they can imagine. And if there’s nothing else for a young person to look forward to, at least they can do that,” Cherlin said. “They believe that being married is optional. But having a child is mandatory.”

The study was published in the American Sociological Review.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

If You Don’t Have a Father Today…

Maybe you don’t have a dad to meet with today. It’s your day, too.

Maybe you don’t have a father anymore, or feel like you never did. Maybe you never knew him, or maybe he was never around enough to know – emotionally, mentally, or spiritually – even if he was often physically in the same room. Maybe you, yourself, are also a father, or will be soon, would like to be one someday, are married to one, have a child with one, or already have a fatherly role toward others as a teacher, advisor, mentor or boss. While we celebrate and honor the great fathers who are here with us today, many millions of us don’t have one, and this day is for you too.

What can you do today, and how is it that you have made it this far without a dad to reach out to through the years?

Volumes of research on human resilience exist that explain your current success and healthy adjustment. Whether you are a man or woman, taking note of the fact that you do have a good life right now at this very moment is proof that you have everything in you that you ever needed to survive the loss of a father, the absence of a father, the need for a father, and thrive anyway. As someone who lost a father at a young age – and for over a decade has specialized in helping men and women overcome the effects of that absence on their dating, relationship, and career lives – I’d like to share a bit of that research, and some things I’ve learned along the way.

Fathers not only make us more resilient people, but our own natural resilience also assists us in finding the fathering we need. Human resilience has been defined as:

a. a positive outcome despite the experience of adversity;
b. continued positive or effective functioning in adverse circumstances; or
c. recovery after a significant trauma (Masten et al., 1999).

My own dad died when I was twenty-two, in the midst of medical school, and had just broken up with a fiancée. My little brothers were eighteen and about to enter college, and twelve and about to enter puberty. I could safely say that the particular week my dad died was also probably the week I had most needed him, ever. And while my brothers and I dealt with the loss at different developmental stages, with different challenges and gifts, and in unique ways amongst us, there were most certainly universal effects to overcome and actions to take to adapt and heal.

I called my brothers today to ask what they are doing. One informed me that he is going to connect with his former rugby coaches, his former priest, and our father’s best friend from childhood. The second is going to church with his new wife and her parents. I am going to spend time writing about fathers, assisting some of my clients on the matter, and then will meet with some good male friends whose fathers aren’t going to be in the city for the weekend.

I’m also thinking about personal heroes such as an old friend and journalist who passed on many years ago – Starr Wright. He was one of many fatherly people who stepped in to help me along when I needed it. He saw a glimmer of passion for writing in me long ago, encouraged it and nurtured it. With a chuckle thumbing through my earliest clumsy attempts at writing, Starr would put out his cigarette, cough, clear his throat, and regardless of my lack of inborn talent, stoke the pure interest and passion for it, saying, “You’re doing good, kid. Keep at it and don’t let anyone tell you what it’s worth but you. Get to work.”

In all of these personal examples, there is a common thread about resilient humans – men and women both. When we can’t get what we need from a single source, we adapt and get it anyway from diverse sources past, present, and future. We find fathering in our mentors and coaches, our spiritual leaders or the spiritual experience itself, from looking at our father’s life and his past, those who shaped him, indirectly from the fathers of our friends and loved ones, and even from our makeshift families called “circles of friends” – what have also been called “urban tribes” that can substitute for nontraditional or broken families.

We can even look to the future with guidance from men we have never even met, and will never likely meet – our heroes. Feeling fathered, the gifts fathers bestow, life skills they teach, and guidance they provide from a masculine worldview do not have to come from a single source. They can be collected and refined from our life’s experience in the social arena itself, the “school of hard knocks,” and the kind and competent men we meet along the way.

I’m particularly proud of my brothers’ abilities to have graduated college, found excellence in careers, and a solid role in marriage and family with no resources or guidance to begin with.

The absence of a dad is certainly known to affect the young in different ways depending on what their level of psychological development is, but it’s not just what’s in you that matters – how you will do with your life is also dependent on what you surround yourself with, and what you do with the circumstances you are in, to adapt. To take your “lemons and make lemonade.”

Glen Elder in Children of the Great Depression (1974), identified the profound effects of historical change on human development. By comparing the experiences of children born in Berkeley and parts of Oakland, California, in the early and late 1920s, he could show that children born at the beginning of the 1920s were not as susceptible to the effects of family disruption and hardship caused by the Great Depression as children born in the late 1920s (Elder, 1974/1999). The findings illustrate that developmental processes should be viewed not only in relation to individually lived time, but also in relation to the socio-historical context in which they take place.

We live in a time of history right now that has been compared to the Great Depression. And while many of the statistics show job losses taking a heavy toll on men’s health and welfare even more than on women currently, we have different resources at our disposal in the form of social networking and technology, behavioral science and education. The need men and women have for a father hasn’t changed, but the pressures on fathers, and our means of accessing their gifts, have.

It’s a different and more challenging social world for men to contend with than it was a generation ago.

For about a decade I have contributed to teaching an online community of men who – on the surface – seek out information with which to better their dating, relationship, social and romantic lives in general. What I found in that time was something deeper than just a public need for more accessible dating tips for men. I met men of all ages, some single, some divorced, some fathers themselves and all struggling to find a role, a place, and social satisfaction in our changing society. The universal need underneath their diversity ends up clearly being a need for a father – they all identify an absent father, a neglectful one, an abusive one, a father confused over his own role in a marriage, community, or society, or at the very least, the absence of enough practical, genuine, fatherly advice from our media to the degree and breadth of social and romantic guidance that women have enjoyed for decades in that same media.

For the past several years, men haven’t been flocking to the internet “men’s dating community” to learn how to date. They’re looking for a father.

Fathers teach us “how to use our bodies” – which is to say, how to take action out there in the world – to take our resources and use them, face our challenges with courage, adapt, innovate, and solve our problems with our own two hands.

They teach their sons about women, and competition with other men. They don’t just lecture, but literally show their sons how to play sports or fix cars, or get a job that’s meaningful. By example they show sons how to grow a character maturity which will lead to someday having a satisfying marriage, career, and a legacy to give back to the world (as he will have done for us.)

Fathers teach their daughters about men, both through their stories, and through personal example – being the very first man she has ever encountered and “fallen in love with.” Fathers show their daughters they are valuable and precious, and will always, always be protected and safe, but that they have guts and strength and resolve no less than a man. If he can see to it, he will always be there for you to help, to remind you of who you are when you are confused or stressed, and that you are not just any girl or woman, a statistic in today’s confusing social and romantic arenas, or a cog in a corporate wheel, but his daughter.

No matter who you are, a man or woman, or whether your father is alive or available to meet today, you come from a long line of fathers – generation after generation over centuries and ages have led up to making you who you are right now. You are a resilient person from a long line of resilient people. You have the right to celebrate today with all the joy you can muster, honoring those who have fathered you – mentors, advisors, teachers, spiritual leaders, friends, bosses and partners – whether they had one minute to spare which would impact you for a lifetime, or years of devoted concern to give.

It is a day to do – to take action the way fathers are so good at helping us with, rather than just to think or ponder our lives. Here, then, are some actions you can take:

• Contact those mentors, teachers, spiritual leaders, advisors, coaches, and elder friends from your past – to thank them for their impact.

• Be with the friends, supporters, and confidantes of your present life who are your examples of good fathering, and with whom you are striving to go out into the world to make an impact.

• Remember who your heroes have been and who they are now, noticing that their own best features are always aspects of yourself – perhaps qualities you haven’t yet cultivated, matured, and brought to bear in the world around you. Join one new activity that your heroes are gifted at.

• Look to the future and enjoy it now instead of waiting for it to be provided to you. The actions you will take while being your own best counsel – fathering yourself – will lead there.

• Look to the future and wonder who you will provide fathering to, the impact you will make, and the legacy you will leave behind when you’re gone. Start now, and offer to help someone less skilled than you, today.

Regardless of the reasons your father is not around – whether there is unfinished business, anger at him, remorse over what went unsaid or undone , loneliness and missing him, or in a time of stress for which you really wish he was around to provide the answer – you are still here and there are real things that need to get done. You don’t have to impress his memory because you never could get his attention, or vow to be his opposite because he let you down. You are resilient, and can forgive his failings while enjoying the skills for building a life you inherited anyway, if only in his DNA.

Get to work.

Father’s Day is your day too, and in every courageous act in which you do what is right, even if it is difficult or uncomfortable, every ambition in which you fail and pick yourself up anyway for another go at it, you’re living a genuine Father’s Day. Every time you pass on what you know, assisting someone with less competence, less experience or skill than your own, you are honoring yourself, and fathers everywhere. You’re honoring fatherhood itself.

You’re doing good, kid. Keep at it, and don’t let anyone tell you what you’re worth but you.

Paul Dobransky, MD