Why do some people hurt the ones they love? Why do some family members flee or remain passive without working on resolving the problems that have created so much tension and pain? Keeping silent or escaping will never solve the problem. As a matter of fact, any unsettled issue will haunt the family forever. On the other hand, why do people fight or bicker over issues that can be mediated and resolved? Are they aware that constant infighting can put the business in jeopardy and relationships among warring parties forever scarred? 

For sure, the prolonged conflict that will escalate into an angry legal fight between branches can produce severe distress not only amongst the direct adversaries but can envelop the entire clan all the way to extended family members. Without a doubt, any major unresolved conflict can spillover to succeeding generations. For traumatized cousins, they will be strangers for life and robbed of years of healthy development playing with their fellow cousins while their beleaguered parents continue to fight against each other. 

And take note, it only takes one sibling/shareholder to choose to conduct a prolonged legal fight for the entire business to be embroiled in years of turmoil. It is no wonder some siblings/shareholders walk away from any sign of battle rather than see their relationships crumble and their children inevitably used as pawns. For other siblings with an ax to grind, they will march on with a single intent to win at all costs regardless of the consequences. Whatever the reason may be, the causes of family conflicts vary, but their impact is certainly perilous no matter which side you are on. 

Nobody Wins in any Legal Contest

Any legal drama will eventually morph into a public scandal where the courts and legal advisors will end up as the only clear winners. As one governance colleague who is a retired judge said, "In nine out of 10 estate cases litigated, the conflicting parties end up in a far worse situation after the courts have made their decisions." He adds that the outcome will definitely result in the awarding or reassigning of some assets, but the lawyer representatives will end up taking a significant chunk of that. In the end, he concluded, "The only person guaranteed to benefit from an estate or family lawsuit is the lawyer." Is this what the family wants? For me, it does not make any sense to weaponize the courts. Family is family. Mediation is the best way.

Family feuds have always been about money, lots of money. However, although estate fights are commonly perceived to be just about money, there is almost always more to a family war than just the money. Many estate disputes are sown by the seeds of jealousy, greed, thirst for control, bitterness, hatred, and hurt feelings resulting from real or perceived preferential treatment by a parent, usually the founder.

The infighting becomes more intense if the patriarch or matriarch has another family on the side or children from previous marital relationships. A significant number of inheritance disputes also involve testators and beneficiaries who come from dysfunctional families or are mentally ill or addicted.

According to lawyer P. Mark Accettura, author of the book “Blood & Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance and What To Do About It,” the combatants can always trace their problems back several years if not all the way back to childhood. It is clear that inheritance conflict rarely comes out of nowhere but rather a continuation of long-term relationship problems that often resurface upon the illness or death of a loved one. And they aren’t just about money or greed; they are about much more, and more often than it, they can actually be anticipated and even avoided. In my next article, I will identify some red flags that highlight the chances of a family drama from happening, and when column space permits, I will also share what you can do to keep the peace within your family.