In the book Blood & Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance, author P. Mark Accettura describes a vexing question that plagues families over inheritances — why do people fight over estates? It’s a question that even Accettura needed to research despite being a veteran estate planner and elder law attorney.
To answer it, he relies on three decades of legal experience and an additional five years of research in social psychology, evolutionary psychology, psychiatry, gerontology, and neuropsychology, with counsel from experts in those disciplines. And some of the reasons might surprise you. He concludes there are five basic reasons:
• Humans are genetically predisposed to seek out competition and conflict.
• Our psychological sense of self is intertwined with what an inheritance represents.
• We are genetically hardwired to be on the lookout for exclusion, even if it doesn’t exist.
• Families fight because the death of a loved one activates the death anxiety everyone feels.
• In some cases, people have partial or full personality disorder that escalates rivalries.
In essence, people are never prepared for the death of a loved one. And the author frequently suggests that what might appear as greed and pettiness are really symptoms of survivors’ struggle to feel loved and important, and to assuage the subconscious terror activated by a loved one’s death. These feelings are compounded when the bonds between the loved ones and those left behind are strong, especially if that is how someone calculates their own sense of self-worth.
“Even though we are all touched by the death of loved ones in our lives, we haven’t adequately confronted the inevitable by preparing for a loss or, more importantly, preparing others for our eventual departure because of our own anxieties about it,” says Randy Sutton, president of Celebrating Legacy. “While arguments over inheritances often become the symptom in some families, the underlying ailment is our need to feel as loved and important as they do to us when we realize they are gone.”
Sutton says where people sometimes make mistakes in estate planning isn’t in what they leave behind, but what they forget to leave behind — a legacy that makes those left behind feel important, loved, and beneficial. He says it is an opportunity to let people know how much they meant — not in the last few fleeting weeks of their winter but written at the time when they are still vibrant.
“Many of the people I have spoken with are not always satisfied with the final words their loved ones shared because their lingering questions often have to do with something 20 or 30 years earlier,” says Sutton. “They want to know if they were good kids or why certain decisions were made when they were younger or if their spouse was faithful … questions that few people are brave enough to ask at the end or have a chance to ask.”
While estates and inheritances may still be viewed as important, Sutton says there is a need to place a greater emphasis on why certain inheritance decisions were made, which shifts the focus away from the material and toward the emotional. But more importantly, the notion that everyone needs to be told they were significant in the lives of lost loved ones keeps surfacing again and again.