By Tim Barkley. March 2021.
Probate is the new family law. Old family dynamics suddenly surface or intensify after the parents are deceased. When Mom or Dad are gone and won’t be grieved or angered by the display of animosity or angst, the simmering sepsis of sibling rivalry, abandonment or rejection, outright abuse or veiled manipulation often bursts the bounds and spills out for all to see.
Is the brother who was always “there” for Mom and never left the family home really a devoted son, or just a lazy gold-digger? “My good-for-nothing stay-at-home brother stole Mom’s money” and “Mom wanted me to have the insurance money for taking care of her for the last 10 years, and my money-grubbing brother who was never around is trying to take it away from me” are just different sides of the same coin.
How about the sister who suddenly reappeared after years of absence – was her care for Dad in his last illness really a display of long-dormant filial piety or just a grab for money? Or some off each? We can convince ourselves of anything.
Administration of the estate can be an act of real or perceived domination. Is my oldest brother seeking appointment as PR of the estate to serve the family, or trying to boss us around one last time? Maybe he has a strong need for control to create order out of chaos; or maybe he enjoys telling other people what to do. Or maybe some of each.
It can be impossible to separate what is “real” from what was “perceived.” But because what is perceived is real, and because people act on their reality, what’s heard by the attorney or the Register of Wills is the speaker’s reality, and it might be a miserable reality.
The human heart is a tortuous labyrinth, and in it one finds gold and gems, but also … monsters lurk there. Good fruiting plants grow alongside noxious weeds. Sorting out the “real” motives of someone else, especially someone else we don’t really know and don’t really trust, is impossible.
Blended or fractured families add to the dynamic. Had Step-Mom sabotaged Dad’s relationship with his children, or had he intentionally severed the bond with them after his remarriage? Or had Mom – Dad’s first wife and the mother of the children – poisoned the relationship between child and Dad, or child and Step-Mom? Or again, had the child’s sense of loyalty to a birthparent seemed to require aloofness toward the stepparent? And those half-siblings and step-siblings … some families manage to create just “one big happy family,” but some do not, and “we” and “them” just never get along.
And the filial piety of the children can make it hard to blame Mom or Dad. The fact that a parent was selfish, or greedy, or abusive, or liked to sleep around, or left the family, can be buried in a sense of final and irretrievable loss at that parent’s death. Defending that deceased parent’s honor can be a final act of devotion; conversely, attacking that deceased parent and all that he or she stood for, including and especially his or her subsequent spouse or children, can be a final attempt at rectification of old wrongs.
The parent has died once. The handling of their final affairs can be a reboot of the grieving process. Sometimes the feelings of abandonment or loss can be unbearable, disorienting … and sometimes the grieving child lashes out at anyone in reach, to try to find a scapegoat.
People who enter the process unhappy with their family dynamic usually don’t emerge satisfied with the resolution. Settling someone’s final affairs is a magnifying glass, even a microscope, bringing into clarity long-ignored issues. After all, if you never see the brother that used to be so dominating; if you’ve written the abusive stepmother out of your life … all of that comes back when the point of connection becomes “live” upon someone’s demise.
The courts, the Register of Wills and the attorney’s offices are usually staffed with people who genuinely care and want to make things right. But sometimes things just can’t be made right.
The attorney, in particular, is an advocate for his or her client, and those clients can be very persuasive. At least based on this attorney’s experience, nobody ever comes in overtly asking for help stealing money from other people. Everyone has a story, and it’s almost always moral and ethical. And it’s been perseverated on by folks who are in a state of heightened awareness due to grief and loss, so it’s very convincing, even airtight.
How do you prevent this kind of pain for your loved ones? Hint: dying broke isn’t the answer. Most of these fights are symbolic. The money is just a measure of victory or defeat.
First, do what you can to work out these issues early. Apologize and ask forgiveness; and forgive, early and often, as an act of the will. This will prevent you from being eaten from inside by bitterness, even if what’s coming at you from outside is bitter in the extreme.
Second, if you know that your family will be the victim of these issues, plan very carefully. Just hoping everything will work out is not a plan. Sitting down with your planning professional to deal hardheadedly with your family reality can avoid, or at least mitigate, the damage down the road from unhappy campers.
Attorney Tim Barkley
The Tim Barkley Law Offices
One Park Avenue
P.O. Box 1136
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