From time to time a client will not tell me about a child because they have become estranged, and they don’t want to leave anything to that child or to that child’s children in the estate plan. When I don’t know that the child even exists, problems can arise since it is usually proper form to mention the child and specifically disinherit him or her in the will and/or trust. Otherwise, the child might successfully claim a portion of the estate.
I suppose that some clients who fail to discuss the relationship do so because of feelings of guilt or shame. They might feel that they’ll be judged if someone knows about the estrangement. Other times it might be out of pain. The client doesn’t want to even think about the issue, so they would rather pretend that the relative doesn’t exist.
A recent New York Times article sheds some light on the subject. Broadly speaking, estrangement is defined as one or more relatives intentionally choosing to end contact because of an ongoing negative relationship. The article points out those relatives who go long stretches without a phone call because of external consequences like a military deployment or incarceration don’t fall into this category.
Lucy Blake, a lecturer at Edge Hill University in England published a systematic review of 51 articles about estrangement in the Journal of Family Theory & Review. This body of literature, Blake wrote, gives family scholars an opportunity to “understand family relationships as they are, rather than how they could or should be.”
As more people share their experiences publicly, some misconceptions are overturned. Assuming that every relationship between a parent and child will last a lifetime is as simplistic as assuming every couple will never split up.
Myth: Estrangement Happens Suddenly
It’s usually a long, drawn-out process as opposed to a single blowout. A parent and child’s relationship typically erodes over time, not overnight. It is usually an accumulation of hurts, betrayals and other factors that accumulate, undermining the sense of trust between family members.
Failure to visit a parent and then not doing so once that parent becomes sick and hospitalized, for example, can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. A parent who cuts off a child financially while he is in college despite having resources can be another triggering event after a lifetime of perceived indifference.
Kristina Sharp, as assistant professor of communications studies at Utah State University states that estrangement is “a continual process. In our culture, there’s a ton of guilt around not forgiving your family. So achieving distance is hard, but maintaining distance is harder.”
Myth: Estrangement is Rare
In 2014, a United Kingdom study found that 8 percent of roughly 2,000 adults said they had cut off a family member. This translates to more than five million people. An additional 19% reported that another relative was no longer in contact with family.
In a 2015 Australian study of 25 parents cut off by at least one child found three main categories of estrangement. In some cases, the son or daughter chose between the parent and someone or something else, such as a spouse or partner. In others, the adult child punished the parent for “perceived wrongdoing” or a difference in values. Additional ongoing stressors like domestic violence, divorce and failing health were also cited.
In-laws who keep the grandchildren away were common issues, as were perceived slights over child-raising, house cleaning/maintenance and even cooking. These slights can escalate into feelings of cumulative disrespect between the parties.
Myth: Estrangement Happens on a Whim
In another Australian study, 26 adults reported being estranged from parents for three main reasons: abuse (physical, emotional or even sexual), betrayal (over secrets), and poor parenting (being overly critical, shaming or scapegoating). The three were not always mutually exclusive and commonly overlapped.
Most of the participants noted that their estrangements followed childhoods in which they had already had poor communications with parents who were physically or emotionally unavailable. One participant said that because he was always responsible for two younger siblings, he decided never to have children of his own. After years of growing apart, the final straw was his wedding day.
In 2014, he and his longtime girlfriend decided to marry at City Hall for practical reasons. He didn’t’ invite his family, in part because it was an informal gathering. But also because a brother had recently married in a traditional ceremony, during which is father backed out of giving a speech. He worried that his father might do something similarly disruptive, so he did not invite him or the rest of the family.
The family found out about the marriage on Facebook. One brother told him he was hurt that he wasn’t even told, and the sister messaged that she and the father would no longer speak to him.
These are all sad tales. It’s interesting that family estrangement is so common. But when planning your estate, it’s usually important for your estate planning attorney to be aware of these issues and to, as delicately as possible, include necessary language in the legal documents.