17 September 2013

Family Ties

recent post on a blog I follow concerned a now-viral obituary alleging years of emotional, physical and psychological abuse by the deceased, perpetrated upon her children, their friends, and … well, according to the obit, pretty much every human being the deceased came into contact with.  As the obit grew famous, the writers came forward, reiterating the claims and proudly unrepentant (I’m not saying they should be repentant, I’m just saying they aren’t).  The obit in question was co-written two of six, making Mom a unifying factor in this sibling relationship.

In my business (which I will generically say often involves inter-generational wealth transfer), I encounter more than a fair share of familial squabbles.  Sometimes, in my disinterested opinion, it’s justified on the part of some family members, as the obit writer claims, but that’s not my business to decide.  Often, Mom’s money (or junk) is only the catalyst setting off a conflagration that has nothing to do with her.  I often hear, especially if we’re down a generation or two and dealing with multiple branches of the family willow, something to the effect that “everyone is a crook except me.”  It most often involves generational peers, be that siblings or cousins, but aside from the tax advantages of trusts, the equitable (or otherwise controlled) distribution of family wealth among competing interests is often the testator/trustor’s primary concern.  I usually can’t make everyone happy, but I can sometimes make everyone equally unhappy.

This got me to thinkin’ about sibling relationships, which can be the most complex relationships we encounter in life.  Like our own birth, these relationships (usually) come into being completely through no thought or choice of our own.  We do not choose our siblings, or often even choose whether or not we have siblings, and sometimes we gain them over our direct objections.  Yet we are forced to live, eat, work and play with these intruders as though they are our very best friends for much of our formative years.

I should pause here and say that I do not, indeed cannot, speak from experience in this area.  Although I have two half-siblings, both older than me, I was adopted and not raised with them.  I was raised as an only child, and thus did not experience all the joys and pains that come with siblinghood.  My sweet wife is the youngest of five siblings and has shared the insights thus gained with me on multiple occasions.  What follows is not a reflection upon her or her siblings (one of which I haven’t even met yet), merely what I hope will be interesting blog fodder.  Any resemblance to actual persons, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

Siblings can be our strongest allies; the one always standing beside us when we’re attacked, always with an arm around our slumped shoulders, or reaching down with a helping right hand.  They can also be our most vexing bullies.  Older siblings may resent the presence of the later arrivals and the parental time and attention that is routed away from them as a result of this interloper.  Younger siblings may find delight in torturing an older sib under the umbrella of Mom & Dad’s protection, getting away with things for which an unrelated third party would murder them in cold blood.   Sibling rivalry is so cliché that it’s, well, cliché.  But clichés don’t get to be clichés by being wrong.
"Historically [sibling bullying] has been accepted as something that's normal, as something that's benign. Oftentimes it's just dismissed," study author Corrina Jenkins Tucker, an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, told The Huffington Post. "Some people actually view it as a good thing, thinking it teaches kids how to fight and develop conflict resolution skills."
But a recent study in the journal Pediatrics says sibling bullying can be just as damaging as peer bullying.  The article claims: “Children who experienced even just one, relatively mild act of sibling aggression in the past year reported greater mental health distress than those who had not. Kids aged 9 and under were more distressed after experiencing physical aggression than their teenage counterparts, but all age groups were equally affected by other forms of bullying.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) cites bullying as a major health concern:
…nearly 30 percent of adolescents in the U.S. have either been a bully, been the victim of bullying, or both. Children who are bullied are at greater risk for depression and anxiety that may last into adulthood, as well as lower academic scores and broader health complaints. Being a bully also carries health risks: Children who are the aggressors are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs as they get older, engage in early sexual activity and abuse their partners or children.

These childhood distresses often come out in the lawyer’s office after Mom or Dad has passed.  Contrary to what you see on TV, families rarely gather together in one place for a “reading of the will,” but meetings do often take place, especially in cases where the lawyer and I didn’t know the descendants prior to probating the will.  Countless times I’ve had to have separate meetings because the co-beneficiaries can’t tolerate being in the same room together.  Lifelong perceptions of favoritism become accusations of impropriety and demands for me to make things right. 

From my perspective, I’m bound by the document the decedent left in writing, and I’m usually very thankful.  Sometimes I can see the undercurrent, sometimes I can’t, but whether the deferential treatment is memorialized or not, my job is to carry out the written instructions of the testator/trustor.  This sometimes makes me the common element that finally unites the beneficiaries; the common enemy they can focus on, and I’m fine with that.  I’ve never had anyone get particularly nasty about it, though I’ve had a few that let their distaste be known in no uncertain terms.  I’m often what stands between them and “their” money, which Grandpa always intended they should have… that’s why he left it in a trust with more strings than Geppetto’s workshop.  I’ve had to tell in-round pool installation guys to recall the backhoe and car dealers to retrieve the keys because trust beneficiaries went in and ordered something and told them to send the bill to me, while Grandpa left a piece of paper that said they pretty much only get money for medical expenses if they’re destitute… because he knew they would order in-ground pools and Ferraris before the memorial service was over.

Do you have any stories of sibling rivalry (no names, please)?  How did/does it affect your life?

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