Young couple showing each other tongue against the evening city

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Do all families fight about money when their members die? We have all heard stories of feuding families, but in more than two decades of estate and trust practice, the attorneys at Hawkins Law PC have only seen a few families fight openly. Most families experience grief and share inheritance with grace and dignity. We believe that the relatively few fighting families could have avoided many of their problems with simple preventative measures.

Some fights develop from personality conflicts. Family bonds often motivate family members work out their differences, but in-laws don’t share those unifying bonds. It is important for older generations to understand that a spouse is usually a person’s most influential relationship. In-laws often misunderstand or dislike their spouses’ family traditions and cultures. A family member may not want to fight, but a spouse’s criticism of family customs and expectations can stretch a person’s conflicting sense of loyalties. In fact, tensions often develop when a married person tries to balance between incompatible expectations of his or her parents and the spouse. The sooner that the older generation recognizes this struggle and works to build bridges with the son-in-law or daughter-in-law, the more likely that bridge-building effort will avoid heartache and hurt feelings in the future.

Most fights result from poor communication among people in weak relationships. Folks who don’t trust each other tend not to speak to each other very often. If one family member takes on a fiduciary role such as Mom’s guardian, executor, or trustee, his silent treatment of the other family members can attract nightmarish trouble. People that want to know what is happening in a guardianship, estate, or trust often assume that the fiduciary is behaving badly if he operates in secrecy. They expect evil among things done in darkness.

Daylight dispels darkness and distrust. Laws governing guardianships, estates, and trusts require fiduciaries to report how they invest and spend assets and income. Smart fiduciaries keep detailed financial records to show with whom they do business; what they do with income, expenses, and assets; and the purpose of each action. Reputable trust and estate attorneys help fiduciaries prepare detailed reports and keep communication lines open with beneficiaries and other interested people.

Tense relationships can disrupt a family so badly that no family member can remain objective and coolheaded. It is tempting to ignore the problem and avoid awkward conversations, but avoidance merely allows tension to smolder. Smoldering tensions often break out into raging infernos during family crises such as the death or disability of a matriarch or patriarch.

A family patriarch or matriarch may be able to resolve persistent family tensions more effectively through conciliatory mediation. We have seen families resolve problems by inviting respected advisors such as church pastors or mediators to coordinate family council discussions. In conciliatory mediation, the neutral mediator engages family members with probing questions about the sources of their tensions and guides them into healthy communication with one another. The mediator may help the family discover that one person’s subconscious and unintentional behaviors and assumptions have alienated other family members, who assumed that the behaviors and assumptions were deliberately abrasive. Such revelations can enable family members to realign their behaviors and assumptions constructively and strengthen family unity.

How can young parents help prevent descendants from fighting? We’ve given that question much thought over the past couple of decades. The answer lies in the heritage that you pass to your children. Families that value material wealth more highly than rich relationships are most vulnerable to conflict. Families that embrace loving relationships much more than money pass on much more treasure than any trust or estate can hold. Parents’ most enriching conversations can be to insist that children cherish each other regardless of pressures their relationships may experience. A family built on love, mutual respect, and open communication is a fortress that repels corrosive greed and selfishness. That family is very wealthy and secure, regardless of its economic fortunes.

Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator, a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation;  a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Indiana Association of Mediators; and he was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.

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