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Wills & Estates

Why Family Feuds Erupt After the Will Is Read

The recently deceased don’t always ingratiate themselves with their survivors when it comes time to read the will.

“People want to control things from the grave, not just throw a bunch of money in a beneficiary’s lap,” says family wealth guru John Pankauski, author of the new book, “Pankauski’s Trustee’s Guide: 10 Steps to Family Trustee Excellence.”

It’s their money so that’s their right.

But family members aren’t always crazy about how the deceased divided up the money or, if the inheritance was put into a trust, the restrictions that are placed on how the money is spent.

And often ill feelings among family members can bubble to the surface when money is at stake.

“I deal with sibling rivalries, petty jealousies and childhood grudges played out by adults who are decades older, but no more mature,” says Pankauski, founder of the Pankauski Law Firm (, which specializes in trust and estate law. “It makes me think that part of my job is to be a wealth psychologist.”

Often, an inheritance isn’t doled out immediately. Instead, it’s placed in a trust with a trustee to oversee it, making decisions on when and how to distribute the money based on the terms of the trust.

In many situations, that works out fine. But in seriously dysfunctional families, that can make a bad situation borderline intolerable.

Pankauski says any number of factors can lead to family feuds or general disgruntlement over an inheritance. Here are just a few:

•  Sense of entitlement. Many beneficiaries have a misplaced sense of entitlement to an inheritance. They just expect that mom or dad will leave them money or property. In their minds, it’s what they have coming to them. “The truth is, you can dispose of your property any way you want,” Pankauski says. “There is no right to an inheritance and just about anyone can be disinherited.”

So if people want to leave their money in a trust for a family pet, or bequeath everything to a neighbor, a mistress or a charity, they have every right to do so, assuming they are competent and know what they are doing. “It’s their money,” Pankauski says. “They can do with it as they wish.” Other than dealing with a spouse, there are almost no restrictions.

•  The audacity of the trust. Family members often become frustrated and angry when they realize they inherited money, but it’s in a trust and there are strings attached.  “The beneficiaries view trusts as handcuffs on their money,” Pankauski says. “A trust takes all those family members’ personal feelings and emotions, all that baggage, and adds money to create a financial stew into which the beneficiaries are thrown.”

Often, because beneficiaries don’t like it that a trustee gets to make decisions on when and how they get a portion of their inheritance, family members will seek counsel and try to “bust the trust.”