Navigating family conflict when a loved one passes away

Hollywood (and its endless rom-coms) would have us believe that there’s nothing more complicated than love. But in reality, grief and loss can lead to some incredibly complicated, difficult reactions. 

There’s sadness of course, but there can also be a range of other complex emotions, such as shock and disbelief, guilt, fear, and even anger. And unfortunately, that anger can bubble to the surface and lead to family conflict after the passing of a loved one. 

Understanding the nature of family conflicts during funerals 

With heightened emotions, conflicts can erupt over just about anything. 

In some cases, there may be family mingling who have not seen or spoken to one another in many years. Some family members may be estranged, which can lead to anger from other family members in their presence. 

Old feuds can reappear, new feuds can ignite, and disagreements that have long been managed with grace can finally blow up. And of course, disputes can arise over the question of inheritance. 

The first step in managing family conflicts is often to understand where they’re coming from and why, so you can take steps towards resolution. 

Tips and techniques for conflict resolution 

Conflict resolution is an incredibly useful skill, because you can use it anywhere from the workplace, to relationships, to dealing with fallouts at a family funeral. 

Here are a few tips you can try: 

  • Act as a mediator to listen objectively to all parties (or appoint someone who can act as a mediator)
  • Always maintain a soft, neutral speaking tone to help reduce tension
  • Do not interrupt when someone is speaking, and do not allow others to interrupt so everyone can be heard
  • Aim to separate the problem from the person (make it us against the problem, not us against one another)
  • Remind everyone to be extra forgiving and understanding during an incredibly difficult time for all
  • Remember that the goal is to resolve the conflict, not win the argument
  • Separate the conflicting parties if they cannot behave civilly
  • Suggest setting up a meeting at a later time or date to continue talks if things are too heated to be productive

How to minimise conflicts pre-emptively 

Conflicts don’t always come as a surprise. If family members have butted heads in the past, it can be wise to take steps to minimise those conflicts coming back to the surface during a funeral or the grieving process. 

Here are a few tips you can try: 

  • Set up a meeting prior to the funeral to talk through the issues in private
  • Set ground rules for the funeral and any related events
  • Enlist other family members to help keep the peace by intervening as appropriate
  • Ask the funeral director for advice and assistance (you can guarantee it won’t be the first time they have seen conflicts arise)
  • Set up a formal mediation with a third party
  • Let everyone know that the funeral is for grieving, and conflicts can be managed at a later date
  • If you have time before someone passes, it might be a good idea to talk about their final wishes. This could help with avoiding family conflict about funeral arrangements.

When we asked seniors in our New Zealand Seniors Legacy Report, we found that just 50% of Kiwis over 50 had discussed their funeral wishes with family. This simple – though admittedly difficult – conversation could help to avoid conflicts around funeral arrangements. 

Handling financial and inheritance-related disputes 

In our Legacy Report, we also found that 80% of Kiwis over 50 plan to leave a financial legacy for their loved ones. That includes savings (65%), real estate (68%), and personal property (72%). 

Our research also found that almost half (45%) of those planning to leave a financial legacy behind felt that their family had expectations or entitlement about receiving it. Sadly, those expectations could lead to disputes if someone feels as though they haven’t received what they are ‘owed’.

If there are any doubts over the validity of a will, it can be challenged in court. Additionally, if someone believes they aren’t receiving their fair share in a will, they might also dispute it. To dispute a will, a person usually needs to file a claim to the High Court within 12 months of the grant of probate. 

In cases where there isn’t a will at all, New Zealand law does have rules in place to help determine what happens to the estate – and who can become an administrator of that estate. 

One less thing to think about 

In either situation, you may well need professional advice and support from a lawyer to navigate the dispute legally.

These disputes can take more than simple mediation to resolve, and between the stress and anxiety of fighting with family and the financial possibilities on the cards, it can simply be best to employ the services of someone who can handle it all for you. 

Even the question of who pays for a funeral can cause concern, which is just one reason why Seniors Funeral Insurance could help your loved ones avoid this, by assisting your family financially with your final wishes.