How to resolve family inheritance conflicts

6 min read

When children or siblings are left out of a will

  • If a child receives less than their siblings, or even nothing, they will often feel judged or compared.

  • It's important to listen to them openly and with compassion and help them work through their feelings if you can.

  • Use a mediator or lawyer if you can’t make headway in your family's conflict.

  • How to overcome family conflict: Try to keep a clear head, and remember that family is more about love and mutual support than who gets what.

Navigating family dynamics can be tricky even at the best of times. When issues around inheritance come up, this can cause disruption at the very time when your family needs each other the most. It can be overwhelming to deal with the frustration, disappointment, and/or anger that arise, all while you’re also grappling with your own grief.

Family conflict over inheritance of property

As you take on this complicated situation, it’s important to remember that no family is perfect. Try to approach everyone with understanding and empathy; they are going through the same challenging experience as you, and difficult issues are bound to come up when emotions are running high.

It’s not always easy to honor the last wishes of your loved one without bringing up the tricky subject of how each person’s inheritance was “earned.” Children, stepchildren, and even grandchildren might question their importance to the person based on what they were left in the will.

Throughout these emotional conversations, try to keep in mind that inheritance is only a small piece of your loved one’s legacy. Your relationship was so much more than material things. And your loved one would not have wanted to create family conflict over inheritance of property or their other belongings.

Family fights over inheritance

People have all kinds of relationships with their children. They can be relatively close or distant, even estranged. Complicating this, many families are blended, with children and stepchildren who are raised in the same household.

If these differences in relationships result in non-equitable inheritance, that’s often where emotions can be stirred up and feelings hurt. It can cause even the closest of siblings to feel compared with one another in how loved they are, and brings into question the worthiness of their relationship with their recently passed parent.

Dealing with a close sibling who feels let down or angry at their share of the estate is hard. But this is a moment when it is most important to comfort them, if you can, and listen to them while they work through their grief. You can also take it a step further to prevent a serious rift by finding an impartial mediator and working with them to find a solution.

On the other hand, you might find yourself at odds with a relative who you do not have as much of a relationship with, such as a step-sibling or an estranged sibling. If the bequests of your loved one are clear and legally spelled out, this is a case where you might be able to step away from the conflict and save yourself the stress of taking on this person’s disappointment.

No matter how good your intentions or how sensitive your approach, disputes can, in rare cases, end up in court, and you should be prepared for that possibility, both logistically and emotionally.

Issues around grandparents and family disputes

Grandchildren are often included in their grandparent’s estate plan, but there are also issues that can arise around this next generation of the family.

Depending on the age of the children, they may not be able to legally receive assets, and so their eventual inheritance is given to their parents. This can lead to other siblings feeling that those with young children “got more.”

It’s not always easy to honor the last wishes of your loved one without bringing up the tricky subject of how each person’s inheritance was “earned.”

It’s helpful to remind everyone that your loved one wasn’t playing favorites but was looking ahead to take care of everyone they loved for the future.

Adult grandchildren might feel left out or not considered if their inheritance is tied to their parents’ share, which can be further complicated by issues within their own families. While not much can be done from a legal standpoint, this might be another scenario where it would be helpful to everyone to employ a mediator.

What if there is no will?

Different complications can come up if your loved one doesn’t leave a will. Unfortunately a majority of Americans who pass away have not written one, and then state law decides who gets what. These laws don’t care about your loved one’s feelings, or how close or distant various members of the family were.

While this removes conflict over someone’s last wishes, it comes with its own set of problems. An estranged child may end up with a larger share of the estate than a sibling who took loving care of the person in their final years. Or a stepchild who was raised as a member of the family but never legally adopted may be inadvertently excluded from any inheritance.

These are unfortunate situations that are not uncommon when there is no will, and in many cases there is little recourse, as state law dictates the inheritance. Consult a lawyer to discuss options. It may well be that the best course of action is to accept the situation and try to approach everyone involved with compassion and openness, reminding them whenever possible that what is most important is your relationships and the memory of your loved one.

When past issues complicate things

The death of a loved one doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our familial relationships are always growing and changing. When someone has passed, it can be tough to leave past issues out of discussions about inheritance.

For example, perhaps one of your siblings owed your parent money and that sum was not considered in the total estate. Or maybe the family has been recently blended through a late-in-life marriage, complicating the question of who is owed what.

Unless you have a valid concern that your loved one was misled or wrongly influenced, remember that this time is about honoring their wishes and celebrating their life, not reopening old wounds. As challenging as it can be, do your best to make sure everyone remembers that.

What if it’s not in the will?

There are often questions around keepsakes, mementos, and other small household items that are not spelled out in the will. While these objects might not be of much monetary value, they can have a lot of emotion tied to them.

These everyday treasured items are part of your loved one's estate and therefore must be divided up according to the will's instructions for anything not specified for a beneficiary. In practice, however, many families choose to agree between all beneficiaries on a division that they deem fair. This can mean taking turns, using a lottery, or another method of sharing. It might not solve all the emotions that come up during the process, but it can help prevent lingering feelings of resentment. The executor is still advised to be careful that every beneficiary agrees to abide by these decisions, lest minds change later on. Always consult an attorney if you are unsure as to the best course of action.

If you’re dealing with conflict around family inheritance, evaluate your role in solving or mediating the conflict. You may find that you can completely remove yourself from the stress because you don’t have any control over the solution.

If you can’t separate yourself from the infighting, employing as much empathy as you can muster for everyone involved will be useful in getting to a resolution. Above all, remember that in the end stuff is just stuff, and what is important is remembering the person you loved and holding everyone else who loved them close.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.