Fighting over the inheritance is an ugly business, as the family of late French icon Johnny Hallyday is undoubtedly aware.

Locked in a bitter dispute with the rock star’s eldest children, his fourth wife, who was left everything in his Will, told the press earlier this year, “They’re stealing my grieving. They’re pummelling me.”

While the high profile dramas of wealthy families might seem a million miles away from most of our lives, the sad fact is that disputes like this are surprisingly common.

Research by Independent Age has found that a fifth of Brits have fallen out with a relative over the death of a family member. The majority of these arguments are over the deceased’s finances and estate. 

So is it just about the money? Clinical Psychologist, Linda Blair, thinks not.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” she says. “One is, of course, that money is harder for many people to come by now, but there’s also an unconscious desire to find a way to hold on to the person who has died.

“All we know is that we want to cling on to something that represents the deceased person. Desperately holding on to their money and possessions is a way of holding on to the person.”

The pain of family fallouts

Indeed, as many of us understand from experience, grief can stir a whole host of extreme and seemingly irrational emotions. But what’s shocking is that, in some cases, these painful conflicts never get resolved.

In our research, almost half of those who’d fallen out with family after a bereavement ended up not speaking for more than a year, while over a third said they still haven’t made up.

According to Linda, there’s a deep reason for this. Rivalry, she believes, is a completely natural instinct, particularly between siblings.

“When we become emotional, we are children again – emotions never grow up – and the emotional side wants to be favoured in the parent’s eyes because that way we’ll have the greatest advantages while growing up.

“It’s natural for us to want to be the special one because we’ll be privileged first. These feelings run very deep. We are completely unaware of them, in fact, but that’s where the rivalry comes in.”

Racking up huge legal costs

Perhaps that could explain why, according to Henrietta Jackson-Stops from mediation provider, In Place of Strife, The Mediation Chambers, families embroiled in a legal dispute often end up racking up more in legal costs than they could ever hope to gain from an inheritance.

Henrietta says, “Often the legal cost can get to the point where it outweighs the value of the claim. For example, a family arguing over a house worth £400,000 might rack up costs that far exceed that amount. They end up so far down the track that it just becomes about who pays the legal costs and that makes it very hard to settle.”

The firm, which provides mediation between warring family members to help them come to a resolution, knows all too well just how bad things can get.

“There are cases where siblings won’t even look at each other as they pass each other in the corridor on the way to the toilet during the mediation day,” Henrietta says.

“The emotional depth is extraordinary. It can go back to ‘my brother was given a red bike for his birthday and I wasn’t.’ These things niggle for years and years and come out later in a dispute over a Will.”

The courage to have difficult conversations

So what can families do to avoid falling out?

“It’s about talking,” Henrietta says. “Avoiding conflict is the ability to have a difficult conversation. It’s talking about the Will and making sure everyone is on board with it; not springing any nasty surprises on anyone after you’ve gone.

“At the end of your life this might be the last thing you want to do, but when you think of the amount of money families spend on legal bills after the event... well, it’s extraordinary.”

Linda agrees that talking is vital. “I think, more than anything, it’s important to take a rational approach. My mother, who’s still going strong at 95, has told us all what she’s going to do with her money and invited us to discuss it with her if we wish to. Now that’s the ideal. The more families talk about it while they’re all still alive, the better.

“Likewise, for anyone in an inheritance situation that feels unfair,” she continues, “rather than getting angry with your family, it’s better to just say that you would like to challenge the decision because it doesn’t seem fair to you.

“It’s hard to stay focused on the Will and not on the relationships involved, but it makes all the difference if you can.”

Understanding the source of the emotion

So what of those families, like the Hallydays, who do fall apart after someone dies. Can they ever hope to build bridges again?

Linda believes they can. She says that by becoming more aware of our emotions and where they come from, we can keep our instinct for rivalry under control.

“You can never manage an emotion unless you understand its source but, once you do understand what the anger is about, you’ll be more able to say, ‘OK, in this society I don’t need to knock everyone else out of the nest in order to survive. I can be fair.’

“Jealousy is going to be there; there’s no point denying it. We need to accept this and then decide to be more rational for the sake of the future.”

Henrietta is also optimistic. “It doesn’t happen every time, but families can build bridges again,” she says. “It’s amazing how the start of a mediation day can be hugely emotional but, after having feelings heard and acknowledged, mediation becomes a transformative process.

“One of our mediators describes this as two individuals who are facing away from each other, back to back, and the first thing the mediator does is get them to turn around, face each other and start a conversation.

“You hope that by the end of it they’re able to shake hands and continue their relationship into the future.”

For tips on dealing with family conflict after a death and to order our free guides, Coping with bereavement, and Planning for the end of life, visit www.independentage.org/we-need-to-talk-about-death/talking-about-death

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