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Dispute over a cello: wills, estates, and family conflict

Have you experienced a change in your relationship with your adult siblings following the death of a parent? Leave a comment below – we would be interested in hearing your story.

If you have ever tried to figure out with your adult siblings how to provide for the needs of an ageing parent, you’ll know that the family dynamics can suddenly change, and not always for the better. Of course, the death of a parent will also fundamentally affect the sibling dynamic.

With the parent no longer assuming a leadership role, discussions between siblings about money and sharing responsibility for care can often reawaken past conflicts, some with their origins in childhood.

This is a very good reason for parents to prepare a will and other testamatory documents very early in life.

The dispute over a cello

wills and estates solve problems

Simply put, it is very difficult to change or escape from established family dynamics. Without clear communication, even a will-defined estate plan sometimes cannot resolve differences between siblings.

For example, a mother dies, leaving behind two daughters, Daughter A and Daughter B. There is a will which instructs how the estate should be administered. Daughter A receives a prized cello, a family heirloom.

Daughter B remarks that the cello should never leave the family – their mother played the cello for them every night after dinner. It means something to Daughter B.

Years pass, and Daughter A, who possesses the cello wants to downsize. She doesn’t have room for the cello and wants to sell it. She decides to sell the cello – she needs to move, and shipping the cello to Daughter B will cost a lot of money that she does not have.

So she sells the cello, and mentions it in passing to her sister, who never speaks to her again.

And this a situation where the will and other testamatory documents were prepared well in advance!

In cases where there are no testamatory documents, it’s even more common for siblings and surviving family members to be influenced by emotions, creating conflict and breaking family bonds.

Kicking the can down the road and ignoring wills and estates

The situation becomes much more complicated in scenarios where no estate planning has been done before the death of a parent.

As we’ve noted before, it’s very common for parents to “kick the can down the road” and defer making a decision about wills and estates, and this lack of foresight can result in a court battle between siblings that may resolve nothing and spell the end of the family.

Dispute resolutions helps preserve families

What to do if a parent has died without arranging a will and other testamatory documents?

An alternative to going to court, which can spell the end of the family, is to seek dispute resolution,  mediation, negotiation and facilitation (Graham Weeks at Dinning Hunter specializes in this area).

Ideally, when planning an estate, it’s a good idea to find a lawyer who takes the time to understand family dynamics, anticipate potential issues, and help you plan and communicate effectively, and help preserve your family.

When families start talking, many hot button issues can be resolved.

Have a story to tell about how your family dynamic changed following the passing of a parent? Leave a comment below.


  • Barry Jeffers says:

    My parents owned a beautiful mountain property on a lake which became quite valuable after decades passed. They died and the property was left to myself and my two brothers all of whom each had 100% ownership. I loved the place, it had been a solace to me and a great source of peace of mind for many unsettling years. However, when I learned the way in which we had legally received the property, I could hardly wait to sell out to them and take the money, which I and one of my brothers did, to our third brother and his son, my nephew, who now owns the property after his father’s death.
    Why did I do this? IF YOU DO NOT DO THIS EARLY YOU MAY NEVER BE ABLE TO DO IT. Each succeeding generation of all the families are now 100% owners. They are called family but they are strangers and everybody can do whatever they want. Needless to say, your enjoyment of the place disappears and any proceeds you might have thought were eventually coming your way have hightailed it.
    This is the overview of what happened up to the end of my part in the ownership. SO GLAD I took the money for a little less the the value at the time. Price went up, price went down. Big pits dug which then had to be filled in. New neighbors with trailers, Huge teepees.4 wheelers. Star thistle and pigweed. Don’t know what they are? You are blessed. Oh, did I mention that this is in the Emerald Triangle in Northern CA? I can’t go on.

  • Hi Barry,

    Thanks for the insights. As you note, sometimes some foresight is needed to deal with these situations.

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