And nothing brings those feelings to the surface like the death of a wealthy parent and the ensuing breakup of the estate. Consider a Maryland family, who we'll call the Worthingtons. They had four children. In the family's early years, the father made less money, so the two oldest kids were forced to live very humbly. By the time the second two children were born, the father was making a lot of money as a well-respected lawyer in Washington, D.C. The younger children grew up on an estate, with a large house, horseback riding lessons, membership at a country club and private school. The older children went to public school and attended state colleges, if they went at all. The only son, who lived on the parents' estate and became a bricklayer-despite his father's protests-was aggrieved because when the father died, he left a will that divided his money evenly between the four children rather than giving him and his older sister a larger chunk to compensate for the frugality they were forced to endure.
"The son felt like, as parents, they had failed him. He felt like he should have gotten more," says Paula Langguth Ryan, a mediator based in Odenton, Md., who specializes in estate and inheritance conflicts.
Ryan notes that arguments about money are usually less about money and more about love. The boy was a source of disappointment to his father, which the son undoubtedly felt.
The death of a parent often shifts the family dynamic, making issues arise that appear to be based on current events but in fact are perceived slights that occurred years ago and are now playing out as the parents' estate is doled out.
"The children can be 60 or 70 years old, and they're talking about events that happened when they were 15," says Michael Dribin, a trusts and estate attorney in Miami. "There's this deep-seated animosity that is just beneath the surface between these siblings that just stays beneath the surface as long as one or both parents are alive. But once both are gone, it's like that glue evaporates."
Dribin says he doesn't know which troubles him more: the fact that fights arise or that siblings will go to war over things like jewelry or artwork. While occasionally siblings will reconcile, most of the time they do not, he says.
"They'll destroy family relationships forever and have no realistic prospect of reconciliation, over the most trivial stuff," Dribin says.
Some parents don't want to treat the children equally. Sometimes it's about disproportionate need, says Cicily Maton, founder of Aequus Wealth Management in Chicago. Say that one child went to work on Wall Street and did extraordinarily well while another became a teacher and doesn't have enough money to pay for his child's college.
The parents may decide to leave more money to the child who has less. But the one who has more money doesn't always understand that. He'll equate money with an expression of love, thinking the parents preferred the poorer sibling, Maton says.
"The Smothers Brothers' little dialogue about how mom loved you best is played out about 50% of the time in settling estate plans," she says.
Disparate treatment looks particularly suspicious if the parents change their will shortly before they die, after one child has moved in with them to take care of them. That child may live closer or is unmarried or unemployed and thus able to drop everything to help the parents, but the siblings may not see it that way when that child is left a bigger share of the estate.
"It does almost always cause a division in feelings about the one who supported the ailing parents," Maton says.
Dribin says he sees a lot of these cases: caregiver siblings who abandon their own family to move in temporarily with the parents. They drive them to their doctors, do their food shopping and negotiate with home healthcare workers. They're so attentive, the parents sometimes change their will as a show of gratitude. The question that nags the siblings, though, is did something improper happen that led to that sibling getting more? It doesn't help if that sibling was struggling financially, Dribin says.
"There are people who have reasons to want to treat their children unequally, and that's certainly their right, but the children being treated unequally will not necessarily appreciate that," Dribin says.
Failing to appreciate it is putting it mildly. They'll likely sue over it, in an attempt to set aside the will, claiming their siblings exerted undue influence over their parents. Either that or they'll have to prove their parents lacked mental capacity when they made out their wills. Those are basically the only two grounds under which someone can sue if they're unhappy with their share of the pot.
"It's not easy to determine what was in mom's or dad's mind, or how much they were being unduly influenced. And mom and dad are no longer around to say whether they were unduly influenced," Dribin says. "I have learned over time not to jump to the conclusion that the child who was there and got the lion's share did anything improper. Very often, when you investigate the facts, there was no one else to step in."
Sometimes the parents aren't even sick when one child moves back home, and his siblings fear he or she is siphoning funds out of the estate before the parents are even dead. One financial planner says he knew a woman in her 80s whose son moved back into the house and one of the first things he did was throw out the caretaker, because he saw the expense eroding his mother's estate and thus his inheritance. His siblings caught wind of it, threw the brother out and got the caretaker back.
In some instances, one child has borrowed money from his parents, for, say, a business venture, and the other siblings see that as reducing the size of the estate and thus their inheritance. Some clients take such loans into account when doing their estate plans, but it's the exception and not the rule, estate attorneys say.
John O'Grady, an estate attorney in San Francisco, says in his 25 years of practice, he's probably seen 100 cases in which a child moves back home to take care of the parents, and he still isn't clear whether their intentions are selfless or selfish. They wind up with complete access to the parents, in some instances gaining access to all the money and accounts. The parents may even give them a credit card or other gifts, and the ability to sign checks.
"It happens routinely. And then mom and dad die, and the other siblings find out about all these gifts, and they get really angry, because they feel like the caregiver kid took advantage," O'Grady says.