Death and Dying

Overcoming the Inheritance Taboo – How to Preserve Relationships and Transfer Possessions by Steven J. Hendlin, Ph. D.

DeathDeath is not a popular family dinner conversation. Most people avoid discussing the death of a family member. Because of this fear of discussing death, most people also refuse to discuss inheritance planning.

Even when death is imminent and clear to all involved, we have a taboo against discussing it.

But, we all have secret and subjective ideas on what should happen to our parent’s (or grandparent’s) assets and personal belongings after they die. We all want to think that we are so special to the dying person that they will want us to have their things – as kind of a final blessing. None of us wants our loved one to pass on without resolving past issues and re-affirming love for each other.

On the other end of the stick, we want our heirs to understand why things are special to us and honor family legacy and tradition by hanging onto some of them. We hope they will remember good times together with us and the family when they see or touch an inherited item, and that they will use our monetary gifts wisely and remember us fondly when they do.

What is the inheritance taboo?

Steven J. Hendlin has defined this fear of and refusal to talk about death/dying and inheritance issues as the inheritance taboo. In fact, he wrote a book (amazingly enough called Overcoming the Inheritance Taboo) about it. He claims the taboo is so ingrained that this is the first self-help psychology book on the topic ever published.

What factors cause this taboo to be in place?

We don’t want to die or lose a loved one.

Because we can’t or won’t picture our own demise, we tend to avoid things that make us think about dying. We ‘forget’ to do an estate plan. We make jokes about dying. We get mad if someone asks us who will get the family silver.

Because we know that it leads to inevitable death, we refuse to acknowledge our growing incapacity.

Because the death of a parent removes the wall between ourselves and our own death we don’t want to acknowledge that they can or will die, because that then means it will be our turn soon.

We worry about family fighting.

Even if we can face our death, we fear that our wishes will be met with discord amongst our heirs. Our kids will think we have been unfair and we don’t really care to deal with it, so we make our plans, put them in writing, but never discuss them before we die.

If we want to try to help our parents face death and deal with their estate, we fear being labeled as a greedy person or someone who can’t wait for our parent to die.

We don’t want to be rude or insensitive.

Our society teaches us that it is not polite to talk about these things. A spouse can’t bear the thought of living without his wife, and refuses to let the kids talk to her about dying. An adult child hesitates to tell their parent that they are spiraling downward – even though they yearn to ask forgiveness and help their parent on the final journey. Doctors and nurses provide treatment after treatment, even when the end is imminent and unavoidable.

We don’t want to start feeling the loss until it actually happens.

Life is for the living. You aren’t dead until you are dead. Why look for trouble, it finds you soon enough.  These are all sayings that support avoiding feeling the loss ahead of time.

Why should you care about overcoming the inheritance taboo?

If you break the cultural mores and succeed in discussing death/dying and inheritances you will:

  • Be able to help your parent make their estate wishes known without fear or guilt.
  • Be better able to cope with the inevitable emotional issues that arise at death.
  • Understand better how to handle the situation where an elder is losing capacity and needs help.
  • Be able to work with other inheritors to rationally discuss who gets what in ambiguous situations.
  • Understand more about why your parents set up their estate plan a certain way.
  • Converse with children and/or parents about what is to happen, hear any concerns and deal with them prior to death.
  • Utilize all resources, including outside help, to work through death and inheritance issues.
  • Communicate with the dying person better to resolve your or their issues prior to death.
  • Understand siblings attitude towards assets and personal objects with sentimental value in order to avoid quarrels and lawsuits.

What tips does the author give to help you understand family dynamics around inheritances?

Hendlin defines roles played by grantors and heirs and how the roles react when faced with death and/or inheritance. For example, he defines six roles that grantors play. One of them is ‘The controlling/punishing’ role where the person in that role tries to effect certain behavior on the part of heirs ‘or else’ they will be disinherited. He claims that in super wealthy families, the threat of disinheritance is more common and stronger than other actions, such as love, blood affiliation or social status. Seeing this behavior and understanding that it is happening is a start at being able to deal with it successfully.

He explains that childhood emotions come back when a parent is dying. Siblings always have rivalry, (Mom likes me best, I’m adopted and so am never included when everyone else is, Tommy always sucks up to Mom and etc) and past perceived slights become the battleground for estate settlement.

Hendlin also shows us the emotions that can arise when death is imminent. We may have guilt about something in our past with the dying person; anger and disgust at having to deal with the sickness and death situation and with quarreling siblings; resentment towards others for what they say or do to the dying person that you don’t think is appropriate; compassion and sympathy towards person dying; our own sadness and pending loss; and the fear of making all the decisions that need to be made at this time and confusion in doing so. Understanding the range of emotions that you and/or your family members may be experiencing allows you to be more empathetic and to take those into account when dealing with the issues.

On the other end, he includes tips for those who will leave an estate to better deal with their inheritors. For example, he suggests making sure everything is in writing because you won’t be around to settle sibling squabbles. He believes that there are benefits to giving things away while you live – not only to enjoy the giving but also because the receiver may value the item more after you die, knowing that you took special care to give it to them.

The author believes that most people consider the inheritance as their final report card from the parent. If they get less than brother Johnny, they feel like they didn’t make the grade. But, you don’t have to continue feeling this, you can consciously decide that you actually don’t need the approval of the dying person to live a full life.

Should you read this book?

If you want to prepare for typical emotions and conflicts that arise with a loss crisis or death; if you want help preserving relationships with siblings and other inheritors; or if you just want to try to open up a conversation about estate planning, this book may be for you.

The author is a psychologist and he wrote the book while dealing with his own Mother’s death.

Does your family talk about estate planning, the need to step into an elder’s life for their own good or what each member wants their legacy to be after death?

Disclosure:  By clicking on the book link, going to Amazon.com and buying the book, you will be providing a small commission to me via the Amazon Associates program.

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4 thoughts on “Death and Dying

  1. I know when my wife and I were doing estate planning. I had a lot of trouble deciding amongst family members. I have a large, complicated family and I tried to be fair, although to this day I’m not sure I’m satisfied. I can see this type of issue being a big hold up even if you wanted to settle your affairs.

  2. I think this is an important topic, and one that far too many people simply don’t want to deal with. The reality is that nobody lives forever, and that we do have some choices in terms of how we want our assets to be distributed. I think it’s best to be proactive as the benefactor, and respectful/cautious as a potential benefactor.

  3. Although this is a very significant topic, it is really difficult to deal with. For me, I despise children who tend to get shares or plan inheritance only among themselves even before their parents die.

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