Things went fairly smoothly after Mattie Moye Hagerty died. The Greenville, N.C., widow left her estate and possessions to be divided equally among her three sons. Two sons, twins Roy and Guy, traveled to the family home to start to divide the family heirlooms. Their brother Harry was in touch by phone before making the trip south from Washington. The brothers asked Harry what he wanted from the house. He named a few things. Then his wife Helen remembered the footstool, the homely one with fringe running along the bottom.
"The footstool was something we had given to her years ago, and I just really wanted it back," Helen explains. "And it wasn't necessarily something we needed or would even use, but once people started claiming things, I started worrying about what our kids might get to inherit from that side of the family. And then it hit me--I realized that I was willing to fight over a footstool. It was pretty embarrassing." Her husband let the footstool go to a niece.
It is hard enough to lose a parent--to snip the last invisible thread connecting a generation to the one preceding it. Now picture yourself standing in the house where you grew up, bickering with your siblings over the spoons in the junk drawer, sobbing over the Christmas ornaments or fighting over Daddy's good-luck charm.
Therapists say ancient feuds between adult siblings can flare up like brush fires when their parents die. The game of who-gets-what can get out of hand when parents are no longer around to officiate and keep the peace. "Things left over from childhood get amplified," says Michael Zentman, director of the postdoctoral program for marriage and family therapy at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. "Every time a family moves into another phase of life, it creates a lot of stress on family members, and for them to have to work on the nuts and bolts of dividing their possessions while they're sad and grieving is a huge stress."
Nikki DeShazo, now in her 20th year as a probate judge in Dallas, sees families land in her courtroom after squabbling so much over possessions that "it tears them apart." DeShazo suggests that the size of the estate in question doesn't seem to have much bearing on the intensity of the family battle. "The only difference between large and small estates is that a large estate has more funds to fuel the feud. In Texas, judges can order people into mediation, and I do, hoping they can work things out, because once you go to court, there's a winner and a loser, and it's permanent. That never goes away."
In addition to the bad feelings such court battles engender, fighting over possessions gets expensive. Probate lawyers may charge from $150 to $350 an hour, making the process pricey when family members pay for hourly legal expertise to help them sort through, say, the tools in the garage. Judge DeShazo's husband, probate lawyer and mediator Ed Smith, has handled thousands of estates in his 38-year career (though never in his wife's courtroom). Smith says he has seen case after case in which people are willing to whittle away at their inheritance in order to try to win a fight over heirlooms. "When I mediate these estate cases, I draw a big circle on an easel for them. Then I tell them, 'You're playing with your own chips here. Your parents probably didn't intend for your lawyers to be the single largest beneficiary of their estate.'"