Family fighting after a death. Why does it happen ? Can you avoid it?

July 19, 2021
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Bernadette Fulton

Many of us have heard of family fighting after the death of a parent or other loved one. Or even worse we may have experienced it ourselves at some time. If this is the case, you are not alone, as it is a situation which many will recognise.

As a parent, it is something you hope will never happen in your family after your death. But you worry that it might.

Why does family fighting happen so often after a death?

Losing a parent or loved one is one of the most difficult things to deal with in life. It goes without saying that it is a highly traumatic and distressing event.  No matter that we think we may be ‘prepared’ there is always shock and dismay.

Those left behind are grieving and emotional. At the same time they must deal with having to make final arrangement for their loved one. This can often involve making difficult decisions. All this can cause tensions to come to a head which leads to arguments and disagreements.

We all grieve differently

Grieving is very personal and we all do it differently. Everyone reacts differently in times of great stress and grief.  But it can be a source of discontent if bereaved family members are grieving in different ways and following a different timeline. It can cause misunderstandings and lead to accusations between family members and ultimately further conflict.

We know that families are usually supportive of each other in times of need. So it can be hard to understand why otherwise close family members start to argue and bicker.

Feelings of loss of control

Death and grief can often cause people to feel a loss of stability and a loss of control. They may try to regain it by making decisions without consulting other family members. Others in the family may not understand or recognise the reasons for these behaviours. Individuals may feel suddenly adrift when their usual family support system seems to be failing them. These situations can easily result in tension and unhappiness within the family.

So what is family fighting usually about?

It is no surprise to learn that the primary source of conflict in families after a death is money and possessions.  An expert in understanding grief comments that ‘As hard as it is for many of us to admit, countless families who never imagine there would be conflict over material things are suddenly overwhelmed by disagreement over estates and belongings.’

The disagreements may even start before the loved one dies. There are often arguments between family members about the end of life treatment of a loved one. About who should be the person’s primary carer and what medical treatment is appropriate. This is especially sensitive if the family member no longer has capacity to make their own decisions in these matters.

Another source of conflict can surround the funeral plans for a loved one. Will all family members agree on either burial or cremation? Or on the type of funeral service they wish to hold? What about the location of a loved one’s final resting place?

Money issues can cause friction very soon after a death. Family may have to quickly find funds to cover final medical or hospital costs, and funeral costs. At the same time they are trying to reach agreement amongst themselves on how to deal with these matters.

Are there other common sources of disagreement?

One tricky issue can be when is it appropriate to start sorting through the possessions left by a loved one. This is a very difficult task for most people. Some may need more time than others before they can face it. But some family members may want to deal with this emotionally draining process sooner.

Then comes the question of what to actually do with the loved one’s personal and household possessions.  Hopefully there is a Will which covers disposal of main assets and other significant bequests. Such as the sharing of any savings, bank accounts, investments and the like.

But a Will rarely itemises other things which have to be dealt with. Such as items of jewellery, keepsakes, family heirlooms and even dinner and silver sets, ornaments and paintings. Some family members may be more sentimentally attached to certain of these than others are. And there may not be agreement on what to do with them.

Even if a Will leaves the family home equally to remaining children, problems may still arise. One sibling may wish to live in the house or want the family to keep the house, while others want it to be sold.  They may also disagree about the timing of any sale if sale is the agreed course.

What can I do to avoid my family fighting about these things after my death?

The best advice is to plan ahead.  And this includes end of life planning. Failure to plan ahead is a major source of post death family fighting and unrest.  Unless we provide clarity and guidance about how things should be handled then disputes are bound to arise.  

Planning ahead means more than planning for your family’s financial wellbeing. While that is important, it is not the only type of planning needed to ensure that everything will be taken care of when the time comes. Our end of life planning is something we should all address, and sooner than later. Because sudden and unexpected events are always possible. Which of us knows what will happen and when?

Grief counsellor Dr Alejandra Vasquez advises that ‘when a family experiences disagreements or tension after a death, it’s usually because they’re forced to make sensitive financial and end-of-life decisions that they may not feel ready or willing to make.’

It is important to record and store your end of life wishes in writing.  And to suggest to your loved ones that they also do this so that it will be clear when the time comes what they wanted.  A lack of clear guidance on a person’s wishes for their medical and funeral arrangements and how they want other important matters handled can lead to families falling apart when a loved one dies.

How Anticipate Life helps avoid this situation

The easiest and most efficient way to record and store all your important life and end of life information is to have an Anticipate Life web based account. Your Anticipate Life account allows you to record and store all your key personal information and your end of life wishes and preferences in one secure, confidential online location.

You can amend and update this information at any time. And you can authorise who may access it after your death. This allows your family and loved ones to know what you want and follow your wishes. Peace of mind for everyone without any family fighting or arguments.

You should already have a valid up-to-date Will. You may have also set up a Living Will (Advance Care Directive) and Enduring Power of Attorney. We invite you to read the posts on our website which explain the purpose and benefits of these important legal documents. And make sure to select, as your executor or attorney, persons who you trust will do their best to follow your instructions and wishes.

Record and store your important documents and other information

Your Anticipate Life account can hold details of the location of your Will and even a copy of it. And any other important documents that your loved ones might need like insurance policies and deeds of ownership. You can provide information which will make it easier for your legal representatives and your loved ones to arrange your affairs smoothly and without delay.

You can include contact details of advisors such as your Executor, solicitor and accountant. And record your wishes regarding matters not covered in your Will. Have you thought about the future care of your pets? Are there any special gifts or donations you wish to make? Your wishes for these and many other things you have probably not even thought about can be included in your account.

Record your funeral wishes and preferences so that those close to you are not left to argue about what they think you might have wanted.

Communicate your wishes to loved ones

Anticipate Life recognises the importance of talking with your loved ones about these difficult but important subjects.  To help start and guide that conversation we have prepared some resource materials which you may like to read.

None of us can change the natures and personalities of our individual family members. And even having the best laid plans is no guarantee of avoiding any family tensions and disagreements. But early communication within families about these subjects is sure to help reduce potential conflict.

Although we cannot control the future, what we can do now is guide our loved ones as to what our wishes are.  So if you haven’t done so already make a plan now for how you would like these things to be handled. Consider setting up an Anticipate Life account where you can record, store and update your important information and wishes.  Let your family know that you have this account and discuss it with them. Taking these steps will go a long way towards avoiding future family arguments. It will ensure that your wishes will be known and can then be followed.

Peace and harmony...This is the real wealth in a family.