Navigating Estate Family Conflict

Monday, August 20, 2012

Family conflict is all too often common when a loved one dies.  Conflict can generate from hurt feelings of the past, resentments from care decisions, and disappointment in asset distribution.  It does not take a large estate to generate family conflict.  How can we best address this conflict to prevent family division? 

Many attorneys believe that most family conflicts can be handled outside the courtroom and should be addressed as quickly as possible.  Not addressing conflict can keep feelings festering and generally only worsen the dynamics. 

Following are some suggestions we have gathered from experts:

  • Many of the problems that arise can be caused by interference from spouses or children of the heirs, not the immediate heirs themselves.   Only immediate heirs should be involved in the division of asset process during the settlement of the estate.  All others, spouses, children, grandchildren, in-laws and friends should NOT participate.
  • Conflict can also arise from early removal of property or items from the home without the overall consent of those involved.  Early on, set some basic ground rules amongst the family to determine how the division will take place.  The more you can formalize the process the more you will avoid conflict. 
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Even in families that you may not anticipate concerns, feelings can easily get hurt or decisions misunderstood from lack of communication.  You might establish a regular discussion time/conference call or a routine email with the immediate family only and administrator if necessary.
  • Take time to have input from all immediate family regarding their concerns, their needs, wishes, etc.  Formalize each person’s input in a document in order to validate each one’s concerns to be addressed in a family meeting or conference call at a later date.
  • Conflict can often arise when one family member feels they are carrying more of the burden than others.  If one person is handling more of the settlement, consider paying them a specific set amount out of the assets or gifting a specific item in order to compensate for their time.    This should be arranged and agreed upon up-front, prior to a problem arising.  Always validate and appreciate their efforts as well.
  • Be hard on the problem, not the people.
    Change the nature of the fight and you’ll change the dynamic. Stop throwing stones in arguments.  Bite your tongue. Think before you respond. Those few seconds of tongue biting can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
  • Reframe your problem as a mutual problem and use “we” language.
  • Keep the conversation going. Life is a dialogue.
  • In a published study, in 63% of the cases (involving end of life), conflict arose over the decision about life-sustaining treatment itself. In 45% of the cases, conflict occurred over other tasks such as communication and pain control. Social issues caused conflict in 19% of the cases.  Communication again is critical and family discussion needs to occur with the physicians and medical staff.  Hospitals often will also provide social workers to help families navigate these tough decisions.

In all cases, there are a million reason’s conflict can occur but restoration can be achieved over time with care and understanding.  If tensions remain high or your family seems to be floundering get professional assistance as early as possible.    You may consider an attorney who specializes in mediation.  They can help in conflict assessment with the “who”, “what”, “where” and provide consultation to the family.  Mediators have their own unique styles, so it is important to ask a mediator about their processes, style and goals of mediation.  An attorney serving as a peacemaker or as counsel to a disputing party can help ensure that the client has the benefit of strategic advice before future problems or troubles appear on the horizon. 

With thanks to the following: Angie Epting Morris, author of The Settlement Game, Diana Mercer, and Barb Cashman who has been a solo practioner in Denver focusing exclusively on estate and elder law and mediation.


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