Every month, I see at least one article about fighting among family members of a recently deceased celebrity. Famous people, lots of money and poor planning make for a potent cocktail of discontent.

Most financial planners know that fighting among heirs is commonplace among the rest of America, too. Money is at the root of many of these disputes but as I alluded to in my June column on helping the terminally ill, the most common topics of debate among heirs are funeral arrangements and the disposition of personal belongings.

Without clear instructions from the deceased, surviving family members face several decisions that must be made in a short period of time. Most commonly fights are about what to do with the body, determining a final resting place and where, when and what a memorial service might be.

Absent a religious reason for one over another, you can choose to have your body buried or cremated. If you think about it, and most people don’t really want to think about this, both of those options are pretty gross. We’ve seen some heirs flip out arguing for one or the other because the deceased was silent on the issue.

It is common for heirs to disagree about where to bury the body or spread the ashes. One heir will insist that a church funeral be held while another thinks the departed would have preferred an informal open house type of event. Some think there shouldn’t be any service of any kind.

Then there is the obituary. Who is going to write it and what will be said? We’ve seen many a battle over the wording. Some people think obits are a waste of time and money.

Fights about the “stuff” are often not really about the stuff. They are fights about tensions that already existed and come to a head when the stresses related to a death arise.

Terry died and her brother Kevin called the nursing home to ask about Terry’s ring. The rest of the family went ballistic on poor Kevin. See, Kevin was far from poor. He had “more money than God” according to another sibling and by asking about the ring, the jealousy and resentment flowed. 

Kevin was accused of being a “greedy bastard” that only looked out for himself and didn’t care about Terry or the rest of the family.  In their narrative, once he got rich, Kevin had “no use for the rest of them.”

It took over two years for the family to understand and believe that Kevin was truly asking about the ring rather than asking for the ring. It was a diamond solitaire the size of a small ice cube and Kevin was concerned it would be stolen. Ironically, his wealth helped him make his case. He really didn’t need the ring.