Dealing with Family Conflict

Even though estate planning is essential in protecting families, controlling assets, and providing peace of mind, it is an unfortunate truth that it can come with a fair amount of conflict and distress.  This is particularly the case with estate planning among families.

Families have unique dynamics.  They have their own methods of communicating with one another and dealing with conflict.  These methods have been constructed over decades.  This post aims to help families address the issue of estate planning without throwing verbal assaults or even objects, or shutting down entirely.  This post aims to help families walk into a conversation about estate planning in a positive and healthy manner and to leave the conversation in an equally positive and healthy manner.

Some families are loathe to discuss estate planning.  Perhaps their estate is so complicated that they feel overwhelmed thinking of what needs to be done.  Or perhaps their estate is small and manageable but they do not like the thought of death or dying.  Or maybe they have never been good at dealing with conflict and they simply cannot find the words for expressing their wants and desires without members erupting into a fight or dissolving into tears.  So they ignore the issue for years and years.  But they always know, in the back of their minds, that one day this issue will need to be addressed.  Unfortunately, this cycle can continue for generations without interruption, to the point where an estate is perpetually the subject of conflict, distress, and strife.

Not dealing with an estate is a huge risk to take.  What families fail to realize is that unless they deal with estate planning while all members are still alive, they run the risk that once they are gone, chaos, havoc, and grief will overtake the remaining members, causing battles that last for years and hard feelings that last lifetimes.  It is far better to plan an estate while all members are alive and can express their desires and intentions.  Yet many families refuse to do so.

There are some core motivations behind families’ refusal to engage in estate planning.  They include fear of making important decisions, fear of angering other members, fear of not being heard, fear of thinking about death, and fear of the unknown.  As is clear, it is fear that fans the flames of refusal to engage in estate planning.  Understanding this motivation and appreciating that every reluctant family member is experiencing it is key in learning how to deal with family conflict in these types of situations.

If you are the family member tasked with introducing the topic of estate planning to the family, you know the importance of doing so gently, with tact, and with patience.  It is best to be direct.  You may choose to broach the topic at a family meeting scheduled just for this matter.  Or you may choose to discuss the topic at a family dinner.  Or perhaps over email.  Or maybe one on one with certain members of the family, working down the list.  Whichever way you choose to talk about this matter with your families, the following tips will help your conversations be smooth and productive.

1.  Be Confident and Self-Assured.

Always remember that others simply may not wish to talk about estate planning out of fear.  Think of a time when you wanted to avoid a situation out of fear.  Think of a time when you may have been inspired by someone who took the reins and dove into the situation and how their confidence and self-assurance calmed you.  Think of yourself as that person.  Be confident.  Intend to have a calm conversation about estate planning with your family.  Visualize how it may go in the best case scenario.  You can have a huge impact on the tone of the conversation and the reactions people have to what is being discussed if you actively engage in the conversation and have positive intentions.  If you confidently keep the conversation on point, ignore distractions, and maintain an even keel and calm tone of voice at all times, the conversation will already be leaps and bounds ahead of what might have been.  If, on the other hand, you approach the situation out of fear, you may very well be too quick to give up or assume that the conversation is going poorly.  Think of a teacher or a public speaker you really admire and how they address a crown.  Try to emulate that person’s confidence and sense of calm.  It will have a positive impact on others around you.

2.  Be Prepared.

Know what you are going to say.  If necessary, have a note pad with notes on it to guide you.  You may even want to consider bringing a script with you.  For a sample script to use in particularly contentious situations, see the sample script included below.

Most likely everyone will be grateful that you are taking the lead, especially if you give good information, remain calm, and be assertive and confident.  Now is the time to lay it all out on the table.  Do you have questions for them?  If so, tell them what your questions are and ask them to answer them now or later.  Is there anything in particular you want to discuss with your family?  If so, tell them you want to talk about it.  Give them an opportunity to think about what you are asking, if they need it.  They may not be prepared to discuss the particulars of any given issue.

You will also want to bring with you information on estate planning.  Consider bringing my post on Estate Planning Basics as a starting point.  It communicates what is needed to plan your estate in an easily understood way.  Also, come into the conversation with intention.  Know what you are asking of your family.  Do you want everyone to speak with an attorney?  Do you want them to make decisions right there on the spot?  Or do you simply want to create a dialogue to enable a discussion of these important matters?  Whatever your ultimate goal, draft notes and a script to help you attain that goal.

3.  Be Positive.

As discussed above, estate planning can be fear-inducing.  Have you ever seen a toddler fall down and watched his/her parent smile, laugh, and say “you’re okay”?  There is no need to be patronizing with your family, but take the attitude that everything is okay.  Talk to your family in a way that eliminates the fear they may be experiencing.  You may already have an idea what is motivating your family to avoid this important topic.  But there is also a chance they could be worried about something that has not even crossed your (or my) mind.  Create a forum where everyone can be heard and everyone has a voice.  Encourage people not to interrupt each other but to listen.  Laugh easily and encourage others to do the same.

The key is to implicitly communicate that discussing the estate need not create conflict.  It can be a very positive experience that brings the family closer together.  How nice to connect intimately with your family in a meaningful and positive way instead of ignore major issues that need to be discussed.  Is it not better to connect with one another, find common ground, and compromise, rather than remaining disconnected and ignoring what is so often the elephant in the room?

4.  Think Big Picture.

Chances are, your family may drive you crazy at times but, deep down, you love them like crazy.  Always remember that.  During your conversation, and in preparing for your conversation, focus on how much you love them and how what you are doing is motivated by your love for them.  Do not hold on to past grudges.  Try not to jump to conclusions when a family member speaks.  Try to avoid thinking, “Jeez, is mom going to start in on this again?”  Or, “I know where he’s going with this, and I don’t like it.”  Give everyone in the room the benefit of the doubt.  Encourage everyone in the room to listen non-defensively. Reassure everyone at every opportunity.  Start the conversation with how much you love your family.  Your ultimate goal is to ensure that after your family members pass on, the remaining members are able to come together to act in unison and to nurture the loving family bonds that can become distressed upon the death of a loved one.  Focus on this positive goal.  It will help motivate everyone else.

5.  If Need Be, Have a Script.

For more concrete advice regarding broaching this topic with your family, read the sample script below.

“Can I have everyone’s attention?  I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you all how much I love each and every one of you.  I want to say how blessed I feel to be a part of this family.  We may have had ups and downs, but we are all on this ride together, and I would not want to be doing this with anyone else.  Thank you for your love and support over all these years.

I also want to admit something to you right now.  I am nervous for the future.  I want to be able to talk to everyone openly about planning the estate.  Can I ask you all for a favor?  Could you just hear me out for the next few minutes?  It is hard for me to address the group, and I feel nervous.  But I want to discuss the estate so that one day we are not guessing what people wanted.  I love everyone in this room and I want to maintain our strong bond and connection even when members of the family pass on.  I believe that talking about some of these issues here and now will help us maintain our close family ties in the coming years.  I feel pretty nervous to talk about these issues right now.  I feel worried about what you all are thinking.  But I would really appreciate your support right now, as addressing the group about this issue is difficult for me.

I would like everyone to take a look at this sheet I prepared.  It has a list of questions that we should address.  We can vote on how best to answer these questions.  Should we answer them right now and talk about them now?  Or should we take them home, mull them over, and talk about them the next time we get together?  I want everyone to feel they have a voice in these matters.  I want everyone to feel heard.

When we do discuss these issues, I want to lay some ground rules.  I do not want anyone to interrupt anyone else.  I want everyone to listen openly and without getting defensive.  I want us all to remember how much we love one another.  And if one of us is feeling angry, I ask that he/she say so, and we can reconvene at another time when we have calmed down.

I want to thank everyone for being so supportive of me today and going along with my ideas.  It means a lot to me.  I love you all, and I feel closer to you now that we can talk about this subject.”

6.  Be Patient.

There is a chance you will not resolve all of the issues facing the family in one fell swoop.  Realize that even if you broach the topic and you get shot down, you at least gave it your best shot.  Think non-defensively about why you may have been shot down.  How did you broach the topic?  What words did you use?  Did you bring it up at an inopportune time?  Were you nervous and insecure?  Were you too direct and overbearing?  Did you spring it upon your family and were they shocked?  Change tactics before attempting to broach the topic again.  And, in the words of Winston Churchill, “never, never, never give up.”

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