In a perfect world, someone dies and leaves behind pages of clear directives on everything from where the finances go to who gets Great Grandma Annette’s rocking chair, and an official executor makes sure the process goes smoothly and everyone loves each other dearly forever more.
But what is there’s no will left behind? How much money do you think it would take to tear your family apart? In her case, documentary filmmaker Amanda Brown knows the answer:
In her film Black Heirlooms, Brown tells the story of her grandmother Edna Mae “Mee Mah” Royal, a mother of eight and matriarch of a large extended clan. When Mee Mah suffered a stroke that left her unable to communicate, the formerly close family became irreconcilably fragmented, with members suing each other for control. Years later, the family remains split into two camps, with nothing but silence between them.
Your family would never have such a tragic breakdown, right? Don’t be so sure. As Brown says, “Money is a catalyst for a number of things,” In her case, it compounded older issues that led to larger and more complicated disagreements.
As a financial therapist, the story of the Brown/Royal family breaks my heart. But it‘s far from unique. Beyond the usual disagreements about a loved one’s wishes or fairness, there’s a natural inclination to project interpersonal aspects of the relationship (emotional closeness, caretaking responsibilities, who was a “good” child vs. a “bad” one) onto the distribution plan. Couple that with emotions amplified by grief, and it’s clear the real challenge is getting the family through probate unscathed and intact.
With that in mind, here are six ways to help your family settle a loved one’s estate and remain sane:
1. Forget the word “right.” Be careful about being so certain you know what your loved one wanted. Even if he or she communicated something specific to you, it’s totally possible different wishes were shared with another family member at another time. In fact, it happens pretty frequently. Unless you have something in writing, be open to all points of view.
2. The word “fair” doesn’t exist. As an experiment, I did a quick social media poll on people’s idea of what a “fair” inheritance plan looks like. Some said everything divided up equally, others argued for a need-based system (those with more obligations/lower income receiving larger portions than more financially well-off family members), and some wanted everything to go to charity. See? The concept of “fair” varies widely from person to person. And it’s impossible to win an argument when someone has a different definition than you.
3. Be clear about your own objectives. If it seems like the process is becoming tense or adversarial, suggest everyone take a beat to think about what exact outcome they’re pursuing. Sure, it may start with a certain division of assets, but it likely won’t end there as feelings get bruised and old factions or grudges come into play. Think long-term: how do you want this process to impact your family? What do you want the outcome to be, even after the assets are dispersed? And will it be worth the consequences?
4. Avoid the family narrative trap. As in the case with Brown’s family, any one argument has the potential to trigger a narrative that may go back decades. “Of course Little Sister thinks she should get X,” the thinking goes. “Mom always bailed her out so she didn’t have to struggle like the rest of us.” This can especially true when a family is dispersed and ideas about people are outdated. When you find yourself seeing present-day actions as a confirmation of something that is “always true” about someone, take a step back, breathe, and remind yourself to stay collaborative.
5. Go for consensus, not a win. Sometimes even when inheritance questions are decided in your favor, it can create significant damage to relationships in the family. During the process, make sure all stakeholders feel included and heard. Explore various options before settling on a course of action, even if it seems like there’s a clear majority in favor of a particular approach. If everyone feels like their points were respected and they had a chance to contribute to the process, it can go a long way in soothing damaged feelings and disappointed hopes afterward.
6. Get help. Please. Settling an estate without clear instructions from the deceased is a complicated, emotional minefield. I hope those last three words encourage you to work with one of the many professional mediators trained to help families work through the process. It’s certainly cheaper than the cost of litigation.
Obviously, the best option is to avoid this situation before it happens. A number of resources can help guide your family through some forward thinking, such as figuring out how to bring up the topic, basic planning and legal documents that should be put in place, and dealing with the emotional aftermath of inheritance. This is a process nobody should have to go through, or end up in, alone.
As a financial therapist, Amanda Clayman helps people live empowered, engaged, and educated financial lives. She runs the Financial Wellness Program for a national arts-based non-profit and maintains a private counseling practice in New York City. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, SELF, and Money Magazine. Visit the Financial Therapy Association to find a practitioner certified in financial work.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Modern Loss is not a therapeutic, legal or financial advisor. Users should verify the veracity and appropriateness of the information posted on the site with his or her own professional adviser.