The ongoing battle between siblings over rights to the photos and personal writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King is a classic case of love gone wrong.
A kind of love presumably exists among the three children - at least in feeling beholden to their parents each in his own fashion. Dexter King, head of Dr. King’s estate, has gone to court to gain the rights to the material for an upcoming book. Siblings Bernice and Martin Luther King III don’t want him to have those rights. What is at stake is the future of a book, already contracted for, about Mrs. King.
To Julie Hall of Charlotte, N.C., a professional estate liquidator, the feuding is an example of what can happen when families don’t carefully plan ahead for the distribution of assets before parents become incapable of making such decisions. This can happen, she says, because many people aren’t willing to face reality.
“They are in denial,” she says.
All too often, she adds, the root of family squabbles is money. Understandably enough, Ms. Hall’s view of the Kings’ lawsuits is that of an outsider, but she guesses that “probably [Mrs. King] didn’t think the children would argue over such things.” Nobody wants to think about their children ending up at odds with one another when, in truth, this is often what happens.
Maggie Brown, 66, found a way around the problem recently by hiring Ms. Hall to help her manage dispersal of her mother’s goods since she wanted to do it over one weekend and was estranged from a sister who might otherwise share the task. Ms. Hall was a logical person to employ; she is author of “The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff,” a survey and guide to settling and cleaning out estates after parents die.
In Ms. Brown’s case, however, her mother was still alive but had suddenly failed mentally. She had to be moved into assisted living and could take very few possessions.
“The apartment was filled to the brim with years of things collected in an era when people had sideboards and candelabra. We were left with the task of disassembling it,” she recalls.
Ms. Brown lived in New York City, her sister in Reno, Nev.; their mother, 94, was in a retirement home in North Carolina. The sisters corresponded by what Ms. Brown calls “scant e-mail.”
Her sister went ahead and “took what she wanted,” followed by Ms. Brown and her daughter. Ms. Hall acted as broker, helping in the interest of time to determine what was valuable so that what couldn’t be donated for recycling would be dumped.
“Everyone I know in my age group is going through this,” Ms. Brown says.
The boomer generation is especially beset by such woes. “Every day, approximately 48 hundred baby boomers become middle-aged orphans,” notes Ms. Hall in her book’s introduction, quoting death statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Few manage the job without pulls on the heartstrings, if not symbolic hair pulling among sibling survivors or family friends.
Professionals who have studied such situations advise following some distinct guidelines for easing what could otherwise be a very painful experience and diminishing the likelihood of ending up in court.
“Everybody needs to be on the page at the same time” is one guideline to follow, Ms. Hall says, and she recommends using a computerized spreadsheet to keep track of things. Discussing all the factors ahead of time with parents is another basic suggestion to reduce or minimize conflict among family members.
If everybody wants the same item, she suggests having an uninterested third party flip a coin or devising a system whereby the interested parties share the item in some manner. If all else fails, it might be possible to sell the item and divide the proceeds. Whatever happens, it’s important to document the outcome in some way, she notes.
“Everybody has to know the plan, whatever it is. It could be about things, or last wishes. More often than not, children say ‘Mom never discussed this.’ The most difficult part is when children have to make decisions on their parents’ behalf when the latter are no longer competent. Some don’t have wills or power of attorney. That is not the legacy you want to leave your children.”
Some of the angst can only be resolved, she suggests, with tactics that resemble a form of group therapy. If fighting breaks out and hard feelings come to the surface, it’s necessary to “validate” the hurt person’s feelings.
“Listen to the person’s pain,” she says. “Encourage everyone to be part of the process.”
The worst-case scenario, as described by Ms. Hall in a telephone interview, was when a physically frail 104-year-old woman found herself alone in the world and in her house, and neighbors and supposed friends descended on her property, taking whatever they could. No legal documents existed to protect her. “Did I get ripped off?’” the woman asked Ms. Hall later - too late.
“It’s happening everywhere,” Ms. Hall says. “People preying on others who can no longer protect themselves. When children aren’t around, heirlooms go out the door.”
She recommends having legal documents kept in charge of an executor. Squabbling goes on in every “socioeconomic bracket” she says.
A University of Minnesota project, headed by Marlene Stum, a professor in the department of family science, took on the subject for study in 1994, hoping to find a way to help family members make informed decisions about inheritance issues. Their concern was what she calls “untitled” - not legally sourced - personal property rather than great estates. Her team discovered that, in her words, “there is just little research on inheritance in terms of family dynamics. That is why we felt the need to listen and learn what works and what doesn’t in [this kind of] decision making.”
Books on estate planning, she found, danced over the matter of personal property, containing only the advice “to put a line in a will saying ‘divide my possessions equally.’ [And] fair doesn’t mean equal when it comes to property.”
No one system or magic answer exists, she says, “but there are some central issues that seem present. If you address them, you are less likely to have severe conflicts. Working it out creatively is key.”
One such issue is misunderstanding the sensitive memories and feelings that personal belongings can trigger. Another is the need to recognize ahead of time that people are going to disagree among themselves about what is a fair process and outcome.
Hence, her team suggests, it’s necessary for families to identify together the objects that have special meaning to each person involved and discuss together the best plan for distribution.
The results of their findings are contained in a 100-page workbook, a video and a Web site, all titled “Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?” The phrase struck a chord with everyone who heard it, says Ms. Stum, speaking from the Twin Cities. “Everyone seems to have a story…. You hear really fascinating stories of how [the issue] brings up family secrets of who got what and why. The complexities of stepfamilies today is typical. Rivalries are going to remain.”