Dysfunctional Families: Sibling Rivalry

Sibling Rivalry in Dysfunctional Families and Estate Litigation

In estate litigation, what euphemistically might be called “sibling rivalry” but in a dysfunctional family, often in reality borders on sibling hatred and jealousies.

In some species, fortunately not humans, the firstborn is known to deliberately kill the second born.

Sibling rivalry can happen in any family, but is particularly common in dysfunctional families when individual children have had negative experiences in childhood. These might be the death of a parent, drug or alcohol addictions, a narcissistic parent, a step parent who is abusive or non-loving, and many other factors that are prevalent in dysfunctional families.

Any lack of a nurturing environment in childhood and the experience of having to go without something so essential to a child as love and bonding, will have a very detrimental effect in adulthood.

If one child or more is favoured over the others, this severely heightens the probability of extreme sibling rivalry that might start in childhood in matters such as fighting over a toy that later may lead to protracted bitter litigation over a parents inheritance.

In my experience most siblings seek a fair and equitable share of their parents inheritance which in most case means exactly equal, and will resent, and even litigate rather than accept that one or more siblings will inherit a greater share of a parents in the absence of reasonable and rational reasons, such as a major disability.

After 45 years of dealing with inheritance litigation among siblings, I note that most sibling disputes can be rather simplistically reduced to the perception that where one sibling inherits more than another, that sibling was loved more by the deceased parent, and that is simply intolerable to the sibling who received less.

In simple terms money and asset division are equated with the level of parental love and approval.

Invariably in any family the children will spend more time with each other and get to know each other better than they will with their parents. Children confide their secrets with each other and grow up knowing how to “push each other’s buttons “far more than most parents are aware.

It is probably only natural that each child seeks as much love and attention as possible from his or her parents, even if it is to the exclusion of siblings.
If a child actually receives more love and attention than other children in the family, it can lead to greater senses of entitlement to share in the parent’s wealth and estate.

I hear the word greed in my office on an almost daily basis when my clients describe the opposing party, who is commonly a sibling. Invariably I also hear that he or she has always been that way, even as a child.

The problem that arises in estate litigation, is that the family greed or sense of entitlement greatly interferes detrimentally with the healthy family unit and instead tends to fracture it .

The breakup of the family unit in recent years has eroded to the point where there are now more blended families than ever, which is a breeding ground for increased sibling estate litigation.

Probably the most difficult sibling rivalry cases are situations where one child has either never left home and became a long time caregiver for a parent, or alternatively, the one child who wants to operate the family farm whereas the others cannot wait to vacate the farm and move to the city.

The remaining siblings while appreciative that their sibling has undertaken the thankless role of either parental caregiving or managing the family farm, and are often dumbfounded when following the death of the parent, it is found that license has been taken with the parent’s resources, or that the caregiver has unilaterally placed a price tag on his or her low by seeking compensation for caring for the parent.

Very often the parent obliges by putting the property into joint tenancy with a right of survivorship with the child who remained at home.

The other siblings invariably take the view that while the caregiver or farm operator has in fact carried out the activity that the parent may have asked for and required, they invariably point out that that child lived room and board free and had and eye on inheriting the entire parents estate.

Estate litigation has been increasing in the last two decades at an almost exponential rate, as the wealth of the older generation increases and the Boomer generation wants to retire with enough wealth to live happily ever after.

Estate disputes arise for a number of reasons, but are very often the result of real or perceived preferential treatment by a parent of one sibling over another.

The so-called greed among siblings is not just all about the money but instead is also a way of validating or not validating parental love and affection.
The division of assets under a parents will often becomes the lightning rod for years of underlying sibling emotions. The parent’s will becomes something much larger than paper dolling out bequests –it is perceived as a monetary quantification of a parent’s love and approval or alternatively distrust and disappointment in a child.

To avoid estate litigation, parents should strive to divide their assets equally between their children, or to at least communicate well in advance to reach child why there may not be an equal division and provide supporting reasons for doing so.

Favouritism in Dysfunctional Families

Favourtism In Dysfunctional Families

While applying favouritism with children can also occur in functional families, it is often more prevalent in and  to further extremes in dysfunctional families.

Favoritism has negative effects on both the favored child and the unfavoured ones that have long-lasting effects throughout life.

For example, while the favored child  certainly basks in the sunset as a child, and perhaps throughout life, the downside for that child might very well  suffer with intimate relationships as they find no one can love them to the degree that their parents did.

Similarly, the favored child may suffer from depression because they have spent much of their lives trying to perpetuate the parental favour so much that they have failed to develop as an individual.

However, don’t feel too sorry for the favored child as they invariably do better in life than the unfavoured child or even neglected child.

It is only natural to resent favoritism and it breeds rampantly.

Unfavoured children invariably suffer from  self-esteem issues or even a chronic need to feel special.

It almost goes without saying that the sibling relationships are strained between the favored and the unfavoured.

When they are young children have to live together under the same household. However once grown, the sibling relationship can take on one of estrangement, where the parties go many  years without talking.

Some depression studies have shown that siblings who experienced consistently favoured or rejected relationships were more likely to exhibit depression in middle-age.

Favoritism is certainly one of those things that qualify as ” perception is everything”  -the parents may argue till they are blue in the face that they have treated their children equally. But if the perception of the child or children is to the contrary, then the perceived unequal treatment has damaging effects for all of the siblings.

I have heard clients tell me that since childhood their brother (sister) could do no wrong – the difficulty is that this tendency never seems to go away, and in fact may get stronger over the decades .

The  worse scenario of the favored child is probably the one who never moves out of home  and is left the home by his or her parents upon their passing  all to the extreme  rage of  his or her siblings.

The favored child will talk about  “sacrifice” in having stayed at home to take care of parents and be good company while the siblings simply see it as a freeloader situation of someone who never grew up .

Advice – It’s not your fault and move on.

Sibling Fighting: Does It Ever End?

Sibling Fighting: Does It Ever End?

From the perspective of an estate litigation lawyer I can categorically state that sibling fighting never ends right up until death – it only has periods of remission.

In fact, after the death of the last parent my experience is that sibling rivalry  greatly increases to the point of litigation that is often vitriolic.

Having raised children and witnessed others it is no surprise that siblings fight as children, but it remains somewhat puzzling why the rivalries last so long after childhood to the point of being lifelong.

The rivalries formed in dysfunctional families are even more extreme as each child has had to fight harder for his or her role within the family in order to ” make it work”.

It is natural for children to compete for the attention and love of their parents and to feel that time spent by the parents with brothers and sisters is time that it has been stolen from them.

However,all of the childhood teasing, bullying, non-sharing type negative behaviors of siblings never seem to go away, and in fact can sometimes be suddenly exacerbated in later adult hood when disputes might arise over inheritances.

It seems that subconsciously  part of ourselves remain the child who demands his or her share of parental love, and those children who feel that they were shortchanged in parental love and attention  often remain stuck in needy relationships all their lives.

Vitriolic court  actions between siblings are sometimes described by judges as  “Cain vs. Abel actions,” referring to the biblical story when one brother Cain kills the other because of jealousy.

I have frequently heard disputing siblings refer to the other as having been jealous  all his or her life.

It would appear that as children, all of the many parental encouragements, such as “be nicer to your sister” often fall upon deaf ears  as jealousies and competitiveness between the siblings  continues

As horrified as I was to watch my firstborn  strike my second born on  first sight, I have subsequently learned that this is quite normal and common.

I am reminded that  in some species , the firstborn kills the second born with parental approval.

Even in non-dysfunctional families, parents can often play a role in  exacerbating their children’s rivalries by playing divide and conquer -playing one child off against the other, while trying to keep control .

It is important to realize that children spend far more time with each other than they do with  their parents and as such they learn  each other’s innermost secrets and behavioral patterns which is both a good thing and a bad thing .

In my world the bad thing is that they really know how to push each other’s buttons.