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Updated 03 February 2014

Wills and family feuds

Why do so many simmering family feuds erupt in the wake of a death in the family, asks Susan Erasmus.

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The reading of Nelson Mandela's will strikes a chord in many families - especially ones where there has been unhappiness about the distribution of a relative's assets.

Endless squabbling over a will that often follows or precedes a death in the family – any family.  I have watched such in-fighting lead to estrangement in families who seemed relatively functional previously. Oddly enough, the amounts at stake were often not huge.

The fault lines in a family
Death, or impending death, has the ability to crack open the fault lines that already exist in a family. The intensity of the emotions awakened by issues surrounding end-of-life care or death has torn many families apart – ironically at a time when they most need one another's support.

But this problem cannot be seen in isolation in a society which has sanitised death to such an extent. An unwillingness to discuss practicalities if someone should die reflects a general avoidance of this topic in many families. Within minutes of the person dying, a funeral parlour will whisk their body away. Gone are the days of having a wake or even much of a gathering of the clan.

We live in a culture obsessed with youth, and quite frankly, it's unpleasant for most people to contemplate their mortality. That is probably the reason why people who are otherwise very well organised, sometimes die intestate, leaving financial chaos in their wake.

And while money and the distribution of possessions often lie at the heart of it, this in-fighting after someone has died is frequently a symptom of deeper-lying issues: old sibling rivalries, perceived or real injustices from the past, favouritism in the family. With the death of a parent also comes the changing of power dynamics in any given family. And all change comes with a certain degree of trauma.

Money a symbol of love
What someone leaves us has become a symbol of how they felt about us, whether rightly or wrongly. Our society has a nasty habit of measuring affection in rands and cents, and not even death can change that. Double the inheritance, double the love. Or half of it. And the problem is once the person is gone, those issues can't be sorted out any more.

And then, of course, there are also sometimes family members who are just plain greedy and grasping.

These issues mentioned above should inspire all of us to put together the kinds of wills that treat our nearest and dearest fairly. I would hate it if the way I disposed of my few earthly goods is to be blamed for feuds that last years and tear a family apart, although the chances of that are minimal.

Not because my family is exceptional (actually now that I contemplate it, I think they are), but because I cannot see myself amassing the kind of wealth that would be worthy of a squabble.

Just one last thing – I find it enormously irritating and manipulative when people justify something they are doing by pretending that the person who died would have wanted it like that.

If you follow that logic, you can do anything at all that you want. And that's just the thing – have you noticed how there's always a direct correlation between what this person wants and what he/she thinks the late relative would have wanted? Who is going to contradict you? OK, maybe another family member who also has a hotline to heaven. This is often where vicious fighting starts. But very seldom where it stops.

In the end the biggest tribute one can pay to someone who has died is to remain united and dignified as a family in the wake of their death. Let us never forget that.

Susan Erasmus is the deputy editor of Health24. Read more of her columns .

 

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