Sad. Depressing. Morbid. These are just a few words clients often use to describe estate planning. However, as a financial professional, you probably describe estate planning as essential, critical, necessary — and, yes, maybe even messy. Most planners recommend that estate planning start early, especially if children are involved. But, children do grow up and become adults, and, hopefully, parents do not die until their children are well into adulthood. What does this mean for adult siblings after their parents have passed away?
The death of anyone close to you is difficult, but the death of a parent can be the most challenging. One of the most significant emotional bonds that a person can have with another person (the parent-child relationship) is broken and this may be the first time that adult children recognize their own mortality, making the grief process even more intense and agonizing than grieving for a different family member.
While there is grief in one-child families when a parent dies, in many other families there is a group of children grieving for their parents. These siblings are not only grieving but they are also managing the relational dynamics among them. Sibling relationships after the death of a parent do not come in a one-size-fits-all box. Factors such as childhood relationship dynamics, sibling rivalry, frequency of communication in adulthood, gender of siblings, and caregiver roles play a part in the relational dynamics among siblings after the death of their parents, and have an impact on the roles they have played and will play in the future of the family.
In a basic estate plan, financial professionals most likely have recommended that the parents create a will, power of attorney, power of attorney for health care, and/or a living will. In these cases, parents have likely helped reduce the burden on their adult children by assigning specific directives and people to act on their behalf and describe how assets should be transitioned. But, maybe not.
Like mentioned above, the parents' deaths can be incredibly difficult on children. During a time of bereavement, siblings may handle their emotions differently. A number of factors come into play in how siblings will come together. A study by Khodyakov and Carr1 suggested that when advance directives (i.e., defined as living will and durable power of attorney for health care) were in place, sibling relationship quality did not necessarily have positive outcomes. When siblings saw these advance directives as "problematic," there was a decrease in self-reported sibling relationship quality. Study participants who reported more depressive symptoms were more likely to see advance directives as problematic. Interestingly, when parents named someone other than one of the siblings as the durable power of attorney for health care, relationship quality improved. These findings indicated that when someone other than a family member was named, pressure was taken off the siblings to make decisions, reducing potential conflict between them.
What happens for siblings if none of these documents are in place? The answer is most likely chaos and conflict. Siblings have different types of relationships with their parents and with their siblings. Conflict can easily arise when one sibling disagrees with another on if and how something should be done. Hurt, resentment, and guilt may result in siblings no longer talking to one another. These emotions and dynamics can also occur when an estate plan is in place but the parents never communicated that plan to the children.
As financial professionals, there are some key takeaways when working with siblings of deceased parents.
1. Encourage parents to talk to their adult children about their estate plan early, including why decisions were made. Invite the children to a meeting with you and the parents. This will likely be more uncomfortable for parents than it will be for you. However, in the long run it may be the most important discussion parents have with their children because they will not be around to deal with the aftermath after they pass. Parents should think about estate planning as planning for their children's lives after they pass rather than for their own deaths. Parents' deaths and the fallout of the estate plan may be the end to sibling relationships because either their expectations (unrealistic or not) were not met or they were surprised and shocked by parents' decisions. One or more siblings may feel as though they were treated unfairly, placing the blame on their siblings and never talking to them again.
2. Be prepared to show empathy to the siblings. Empathizing with siblings during this difficult time in their life is crucial. This requires the ability to intensely listen, care, show compassion, and to gain a deep understanding about the transition siblings are facing.
3. Normalize siblings' grief and the varying reactions to parental death. All families go through life transition points that are difficult and messy. Death is a normal part of life and varying reactions to a person in which there is a deep emotional bond is normal. Help siblings recognize that differing reactions and varying ways to cope with the passing of a loved one is normal.
4. Use conflict resolution skills if necessary. When the final parent dies, the emotional reactions to the death and the estate plan put into place may bring up sibling rivalry, may highlight possible parental favoritism, and a host of other unresolved issues, making it a prime time for sibling conflict. Fisher and Ury2 identified four concepts to help resolve arguments:
- Separate the people from the problem
- Focus on interests, not positions
- Generate options for mutual gain
- Establish objective criteria
5. Identify the next necessary steps to help move the estate plan forward. For you, this may seem like a no-brainer and an easy task. Because siblings may be in conflict due to decisions made in the last parts of the parent's life, how parental care was given prior to death, past childhood rivalry, and parental favoritism, or because the family's relationships are conflictual in nature, this is likely to be the most difficult task. As the last step in the conflict resolution process described above, providing specific recommendations or analyses of what needs to be done to finalize the estate is important. However, you will need takeaways 1-4 to help implement the plan.
6. Refer to a family relationship specialist or family mediator, or invite this professional to be part of the process. Sometimes the relationships among family members are not healthy enough for a financial professional to work with alone. Making an appropriate referral or collaborating with a professional trained in helping families during difficult life transitions may be prudent.
1Khodyakov, D., & Carr, D. (2009). The impact of late-life parental death on adult sibling relationships: Do parents' advance directives help or hurt? Research on aging.
2Fisher, R., & Ury, W., (1991). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
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