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Bar News - June 15, 2012

Book Review: Blood & Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance and What to Do about It By Mark Accettura


Here’s a riddle. When does administering an estate resemble a cross between an intricate labyrinth and a house of mirrors? The answer to this question is found in veteran estate planning attorney P. Mark Accettura’s new book Blood & Money, from Collinwood Press.

Most of us do not think of administering a decedent’s estate as a trip through a maze where at each turn things are not what they seem. Yet for some families, this comparison isn’t far-fetched. According to Accettura, family members gripped by the need for approval from their loved ones and wracked by noxious testators may create epic fights over inheritances.

Accettura argues that money is not generally the root of most estate conflicts. Rather, he claims that primeval forces cause familial infighting. Factor in an inherent need to be accepted, the deep anxiety that death provokes, and even a testator’s underlying mental disorder, and the result may create a toxic environment in families. Although he acknowledges that our survival is also dependent on cooperation and conflict resolution, and on empathy and forgiveness, ingredients of unhealthy parent-child-sibling relationships together with the vulnerability of aging relatives, may be the recipe for a poisonous brew of inheritance battles when a loved one dies.

Of course, if you are an estate planning attorney, you know that most estates do not unravel into the morass of which Accettura writes, and he acknowledges this fact too. The truth is that most estate matters resolve themselves with relatively little issue among family members. Yet for families that are affected, the problems that arise frequently create irreconcilable rifts. Inheritance battles break families apart irreparably and are the stuff of legend, literature and pop culture, and perhaps lend themselves to a small bit of Schadenfreude too.

Accettura has created an easy book, charming at times, full of anecdotes and tales of caution, accessible to lay people and very relevant not only to attorneys but also to financial advisors, accountants and others who work with life planning. Beyond evolution, Accettura provides a logical progression and speaks thoughtfully as to why some testators disinherit their family members and how toxic inheritance is derived. To add clarity he provides a detailed account of the Brook Aster story and discusses at length the vulnerability of frail elders. Chapters which discuss legal capacity, undue influence and legal protections and remedies may seem to drag. Attorneys are probably already familiar with this subject matter and lay people may find it tedious. Ultimately, however, these chapters provide a brief primer, and may prove useful to family members who are concerned with potential wrongdoing. Accettura provides a brief history of the "legacy of the legacy" that is entertaining, if not thought-provoking. Perhaps the most relevant chapter of all is that which delineates steps we can take to minimize, mitigate or avoid leaving troubled estates.

To lay the foundation for his case, Accettura literally begins at the "dawn of man" primarily relying on theories of evolutionary psychology, a relatively new way of explaining human behavior which contends that humans evolved both psychologically and behaviorally in their environment. It is through this lens that the author allows us to understand the relationships at the core of the book: "parenting, sibling rivalry, greed, kinship, aggression, favoritism, forgiveness, fear of exclusion and altruism." (p. 15).

If there is a shortcoming to Accettura’s approach it is that he takes on a massive amount of scientific theory suitable for its own treatises and texts. That is not to say that Accettura does not have a valid point in his thesis, and he has certainly done his research. The book took him four years to write and it is very well cited. Notwithstanding Accettura’s theories, it is a bit overwhelming to consider all of human evolutionary psychology, and then immediately launch into a discussion of disinheritance, and the theory has a tendency to neatly back into itself. Still, the author’s desire to unearth the nature behind why we humans may make estate planning decisions in the way that we do is admirable. He refuses to simply begin with the assumption that we are just wired this way, without further attempting to offer proof to this end. In this way, Accettura offers a unique approach to the issue of why families fight over inheritances. He makes it easy for us to understand how we are predisposed to some very bad behaviors which may present themselves if we do not use compassion and caring to enlighten our more base instincts and learn to empathize with those that we may fear the most.

Blood & Money is the type of relevant read every attorney should have in his or her library. It is just the sort of book that we may be inclined to give to certain clients and family members, and undoubtedly one that will inspire further consideration of who we are as humans and just how far we have (or have not) come as a species over time. At the end of the day, Accettura’s primary consideration is helping lay persons, and correspondingly their professionals, strive to protect what many would argue is our greatest legacy: family harmony and cohesiveness.

Daphne Moritz

Daphne Moritz is a principal and partner in Melendy Moritz PLLC. With offices in Hanover, New Hampshire and Woodstock, Vermont, Melendy Moritz PLLC focuses on the areas of estate planning, trust administration, probate, elder law, special needs planning, guardianship, business and farm succession planning, tax and real estate.

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