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adult sibling rivalry

Planning Inheritance & Avoiding Sibling Confrontation

“Mom always liked you best,” the rivalry that is an almost ubiquitous part of growing up with siblings. Most of the time, sibling rivalries fade over the years, becoming fodder for family ribbing around the holiday table. But when the passing of a parent drives siblings into the unfamiliar territory of dealing with an inheritance, those rivalries can rear their ugly heads in unexpected and sometimes heartbreaking ways.

What are the top three topics of sibling discontent?

  • How an inheritance is divided.
  • Whether one sibling supports his or her parents more than the other siblings.
  • Whether parents are being fair in their financial support of their children.

The death and loss of a parent is difficult enough, but it also becomes a test for sibling relationships. Not only does it create a great deal of emotional turmoil on an individual level, but it can stir up feelings of tension and suspicion between siblings and their spouses. Old grievances can suddenly seem fresh if brothers and sisters are forced to try and address delicate financial issues on their own.

There are a variety of potential problems that may occur and no end to what could exacerbate an already trying process of wrapping up a parent’s estate and distributing inheritance.

Differing perceptions of what each sibling has “earned” can create very different expectations. i.e., when one child has done the lion’s share of the work taking care of an aging parent and assumes that he or she will receive the corresponding share of the inheritance.

Perhaps one child received financial support in the form of a loan, investment, or property while the parent was still alive, and the other siblings feel that should be factored into how the remainder of the inheritance is divided.

Economic disparity between siblings can create conflict around how assets are divided and managed. An individual who is more financially stable, for instance, might prefer to hold onto a particular asset in the hopes of a long-term payout while a sibling who has a greater financial need may want to turn the asset around for a more immediate return.

Other common issues have to do with how new spouses or stepsiblings’ figure into the picture, how dependent siblings (with physical or mental illness) are cared for, the estrangement of certain children from the parent, and the ugly possibility that one sibling (the “favorite”) may have exerted undue influence for personal gain.

All these situations, have the possibility of pitting siblings against each other as they try to sort out who gets what.


The answer to finding a way out of these difficult situations is, as if often the case, good COMMUNICATION. Siblings (and parents, while they are still alive) should engage in open and honest conversations about intentions and expectations around inheritance. More to the point, these conversations should take place on an ongoing basis so that everyone remains on the same page even as situations change.

Early on, these conversations can include topics such as how siblings will share in taking care of their parents. Taking the time to listen to each sibling and define clear responsibilities is critical to ensuring that everyone feels that the ultimate arrangements are equitable.

Early conversations are also a good time for parents to share their intentions and the reasons behind their decisions about how to distribute an inheritance. If family members find it difficult to have these kinds of conversations successfully (or, at all), it can be very helpful to engage an impartial party to help facilitate and mediate the dialog. A collaborative family meeting can help both parents and siblings ease into the process.

The key is to start talking sooner than later. Address any issues head on rather than letting them fester. While it may be funny to joke around the Thanksgiving turkey about who’s the favorite, when things get serious it’s critical that siblings know they have each other’s backs.

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