Losing a loved one can be a highly charged and very traumatic time. Though coping with loss can be a deeply personal experience, especially if death was sudden, grief doesn’t seem to hold itself to the normal passage of time. To borrow a quote from author Jean Edelstein, “Grief doesn’t follow a timeline nor does the calendar make allowances for grief.” 

In my years helping unprepared families navigate through the overwhelming maze of sudden death issues, what can be unpredictable is the added pain of sibling conflict transformed into inheritance conflict. As the bereavement and grief process kicks in, I want to share some warning signs that family members and owners sensed when they were alive but were afraid to raise it or were just too busy (making money) to flag it. Ignoring these telltale signs could be a simmering boil within your family after you are gone.

So you might want to ask this question? What is it that so often drives people to wage war against their own flesh and blood over a loved one’s estate? The answers are so predictable yet callously ignored during the lifetime of the founder. So when a patriarch or matriarch dies, the road to real conflict begins.

Case in point: The bitter family squabble over the estate left by prominent lawyer and businessman Potenciano “Nanoy” Ilusorio, which included shares in Philippine Communications Satellite Corp. (Philcomsat) and the Baguio Country Club, left the family in bitter conflict for years. 

Pitting one set of siblings against another, the Ilusorio family feud dragged on for more than 15 years and clogged the court system with more than 300 legal suits and countersuits.

To quote the media covering the conflict, “It’s not the first “prominent/wealthy family” inheritance battle waged nor will it certainly be the last, but the on-going estate litigation of Potenciano’ Nanoy’ Ilusorio’s heirs has emerged as one of the longest, nastiest, most public, no-holds-barred litigious family feuds in Philippine history or in the annals of jurisprudence.” 

Inheritance conflict doesn’t come out of nowhere; it is a continuation of long-term relationship problems that resurface upon the illness or death of a loved one. And they aren’t just about money or greed; they are about much more. 

As a family business consultant constantly collaborating with inheritance experts, I am regularly confronted with families behaving irrationally. Heirs, usually siblings, who are decent individuals, highly educated and respectable members of their community regress to fighting, screaming immature adult children, with some resorting to intimidation and even threatening to inflict physical pain on each other. These disputes rarely come out of nowhere, though. Often they can be anticipated and even avoided. They may start as hidden, undisclosed tiny bubbles hiding beneath the surface. These bubbles suddenly grow and ascend when the leader dies or becomes incapacitated. Then it transforms into actual conflict.

Every family with sufficient wealth is likely going through some form of tension, is on the verge of a major conflict, or is bracing for the “big one to end it all.” We’ve identified several conditions that make the chances of a challenge more likely, along with what you can do to keep the peace in your family, and topping the list would always be history’s oldest form of rivalry. We plainly refer to it as sibling rivalry. 

In a family business, the sibling issues always start small and petty but sometimes, seemingly minor issues like perceived unfairness (compensation, unclear roles in the business, giving an object to a family member like a watch or jewelry, etc.) can offend other family members, trigger a family towards conflict, and turn the founder’s passing into the ultimate test of any tension siblings think they’ve overcome. Upon reflection, a distraught family member aggravated by grief reinforced by the feeling that he or she has been abandoned will end up refreshed with memories of being unjustly treated, which were never evened during the lifetime of the parent. As a result, the settlement of an estate can, unfortunately, become a battleground for the settlement of old scores.

To be continued...