The death of a parent can revive dormant rivalries between siblings. Grudges and perceived wrongs from the distant past can feel as fresh as they did 20 years ago. One family we worked with ended up going to court over a Bible.
In this case, two of the three sons were named co-executors of their mother's multi-million-dollar estate. The third brother had distanced himself from the family years earlier because of a feud over the family business. When he discovered that he stood to inherit significantly less than his two brothers, he hired an attorney and contested every move they made.
When those maneuvers didn't work, he snuck into his mother's house and stole the family Bible with full knowledge his brothers attached great sentimental value to it. The two brothers finally got the keepsake back, but only after a long—and expensive—court battle. Still, the disgruntled brother accomplished his goals of rattling his brothers, draining money from the estate and dragging out probate.
While you can't predict exactly where an issue might erupt, here are three common trigger points that we’ve seen with family fights over inheritances, and some guidance for how to manage them.
1. "Mom Always Liked You Best"
At the end of the day, nobody really wants to be an executor but deep inside, most of us want to be asked, because we equate being named executor as both a vote of confidence and a validation of our relationship with the person who died. So not being asked can create resentment toward the person who was. That resentment can manifest as a deep distrust of the process and constant questioning of the decisions that are made.As named executor, you can minimize resentment by being sensitive to others' feelings, staying approachable, and encouraging collaboration.
2. When 'Fair' isn't Always Equal
There’s often a gap between what beneficiaries expect to receive and what they actually get. One of the most common refrains we hear is, “Mom said she wanted me to have [fill in the blank] after she died.” But if the Will doesn’t specify the distribution of an individual item, the item becomes the property of the estate. The executor has the job of distributing estate proceeds according to the percentages outlined in the Will, typically equally to the named beneficiaries, after specific bequests are fulfilled. If Mom's Will didn't specifically list you as the beneficiary of the family heirloom sterling silverware, the set may be bequeathed to the oldest son listed in the Will. As a named beneficiary, he could also receive the same share of the residual estate assets all other heirs get.
While some requests from family members may seem small enough, they present risks. If the executor were to let one person take a personal item that wasn’t specifically bequeathed to them, everyone else will expect something, too.
3. Facing Your Judge and Jury
It’s a universal truth: When one person is assigned to a specific task, others are assigned the role of judging that person’s performance. And family members with a stake in the process – whether personal or financial – can be harsh critics. Questions can quickly escalate into accusations if they aren’t answered, or if the other beneficiaries don’t like the answers they’re hearing.
Constant criticism puts tremendous pressure on executors. So much pressure, in fact, that we often find executors trapped in a holding pattern. Their fear of causing conflict can be greater than the pain of doing nothing. And the To-Do list can be paralyzing. As a result, probate can drag on for years, prolonging everyone’s anxiety.
Simple Steps for Keeping Family Members on Board
As executor, you can’t control family fights over inheritance, or insulate yourself from potential blowback from unhappy family members. What you can do is communicate early and often. Here are some guidelines:
- Tell Everyone the Rules. Let family members know that there are going to be some decisions that require collaboration. They will have the opportunity to provide input at that time. But there are also going to be decisions that you as executor will have to make on your own, and you’ll keep them informed of those, too.
- Trust your Instincts About Your Tribe. If you know from the outset that family dynamics could complicate probate, consider bringing in an objective third party to help mediate. It doesn’t have to be an estate attorney, just someone who can remain neutral and help resolve family fights over inheritance with patience and detachment.
- Don't Allow the Process to Consume You. Probably the most important thing you can do is to take care of yourself through this difficult and emotional process. Set parameters around the time that you'll focus on probate issues, and then respect those boundaries so you can also keep up with the rest of your life.
At the end of the day, stuff is just stuff. Remember, the most valuable part of any inheritance is the family bond that a beloved parent leaves behind.