An excerpt from Blood & Money: Why Families Fight over Inheritance and What to Do About It, by P. Mark Accettura, Esq.
What is it that so often drives people to wage war against their own flesh and blood over a loved one’s estate?
This is a vexing question veteran estate planning and elder law attorney P. Mark Accettura answers in his thought-provoking book Blood & Money. In it he explains the psychology behind why people fight over estates and provides a comprehensive list of steps that will-makers, heirs and their lawyers and advisors can take to prevent family-splitting inheritance disputes.
“Inheritance disputes are not so much about money. People fight over the love they feel they did not receive.”—Psychiatrist/author Reuven Bar-Levav, M.D.
The old adage that “money makes people do funny things” doesn’t do justice to their real problems and root causes of family conflict. To attribute inheritance disputes simply to greed ignores the underlying forces that lead families to fight. Money is not the core reason that families fight: Money is how we keep score in the fight for the intangibles of love, approval and primordial survival. Money and possessions also help allay the fears of those left behind. When families fight, greed is rarely the principal motive.
There are five basic reasons why families fight in matters of inheritance:
• First, humans are genetically predisposed to competition and conflict;
• second, our psychological sense of self is intertwined with the approval that an inheritance represents, especially when the decedent is a parent;
• third, we are genetically hardwired to be on the lookout for exclusion, sometimes finding it when it doesn’t exist;
• fourth, families fight because the death of a loved one activates the death anxieties of those left behind; and
• finally, in some cases, one or more members of a family has a partial or full-blown personality disorder that causes them to distort and escalate natural family rivalries into personal and legal battles.
These sources of family conflict are not mutually exclusive; in most cases, some combination of the five elements present themselves in a combustible cocktail of family rivalry and conflict.
Chapter One in Blood & Money, “Behaving Like Animals,” introduces the field of evolutionary psychology. Applying Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human behavior, evolutionary psychology is the starting point in explaining family conflict and inheritance disputes. According to evolutionary psychologists, conflict between parents and children, sibling rivalry, the prejudice against stepchildren, and even elder abuse are natural and adaptive behaviors. In the wild, and occasionally among humans, such conflict results in siblicide, parricide and infanticide.