Story after story gets written about the rich and famous individuals and their not so rich or famous peers whose adult children and second, third or even fourth spouses argue about what they would want once they become cognitively impaired or die. Unfortunately, it’s proven time and again that if there is a time when seemingly normal human beings will go at other human beings whom they supposedly love in a no-holds barred “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach, it’s at a loved one’s end-of-life.
Family conflict makes the list of biggest headaches for just about every professional working with older adults and their families. One website that offers assistance to professionals who advise the “Exceptionally Affluent,” says of the family feuds, “Siblings of all ages, and of all economic or professional statures, have a tendency to dig in their heels, fight for control and often be profoundly pigheaded when legal and family matters collide.” Yep. They called the upper crust pigheaded. To be fair they called all of us pigheaded. We’re not painting a pretty picture for the ones that come behind.
Obviously, if we want to avoid a family version of World War III from happening, we have to change something. Because not only can the battle lines be drawn about inheritance but they can be drawn about your care. They can be drawn over who you can see. They can turn an unwell member of a family who is not capable of voicing his or her own decisions into a rag doll at risk of being torn asunder by the very people who should be working in cooperation with one another rather than tugging with increasing fervor on their part of the doll. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, age does not eliminate the possibility of squabbles. Adult children in their 80s have been convicted of turning aging into a battle.
Many of the conflicts arise over perceived injustice. To be fair, there’s a lot of opportunities for inequity. Everything from who gets named executor of the Will to who provides care when a parent needs help with simple activities to who gets what when the parent dies can all create pain and suffering for the children. Children can add their own problems to the mix by providing the primary care and becoming frustrated with siblings who won’t help relieve the burden or conversely not allowing anyone else to provide care.
Parents trying to be balanced may have to decide whether they provide a larger inheritance to a child with fewer resources or leave a larger inheritance in payment for providing care. Children are also not necessarily the saints their parents believe (or at least want) them to believe and often times one child takes advantage of the situation frustrating a concerned sibling.
As a parent, you can play a role in addressing the issues before they end up with your children in litigation or in permanent poor relations with their siblings. Here are a few things every parent should do:
- Don’t die without a Will. Dying intestate leaves your assets in someone else’s hands. Without a Will, your property rights will be transferred based on state law rather than your personal preference.
- Let your children know how big (or little) your estate is. Not everyone is as frank as Gloria Vanderbilt but everyone should let their children have reasonable expectations as to what they will inherit. Talking about money is a very personal matter and many people feel uncomfortable doing so but leaving children money they didn’t expect can leave them unprepared for even modest amounts. Likewise, children who expect an inheritance and don’t receive one may have built that inheritance into their own financial plans.
- Make specific bequests. Not necessarily for everything but if something has monetary, emotional or other value to children, make sure that they are either given away prior to your passing or that specific items are given to specific individuals. It’s equally important to let children know if they are splitting an inheritance just how that split looks to you. This is no time to be ambiguous.
- Write it down. If you agree to pay a child for care either with property or with a larger inheritance, have a lawyer draw up a caregiver contract.
- Have a family meeting. It’s difficult to over communicate things but rather easy to leave something out. Family meetings offer everyone the opportunity to contribute. It’s best to have an impartial mediator in charge of the meeting to keep with an agenda and move things along. Making a point to talk to all of your family at the same time about some very tough but important topics can help your family work things out later on when you aren’t available.
Conflicts between siblings and/or second families can last long after you’re gone. Do your part and set the stage so that they don’ ever occur.