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Family conflict over parents – It’s a killer

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To you baby boomers out there (which includes me), as an Elder Lawyer, there is one thing I have learnt in dealing with conflict in families over the interests of mum or dad – sibling conflict is a killer.

While such conflict will not normally result in a death in the family, there will be a death of the family.

High need, dependant parents can expose a combination of terminal conditions in siblings – arrogance, self-righteousness, repressed enmities and jealousies, machinations, manipulations and the, ‘I know what’s best’ syndrome. Together, they plant the seeds of family ruination. It leaves mum and dad in desolate despair, implodes sibling relationships, infects even the relationships between nephews and nieces and ultimately, the indignity of the intrusion of benevolent bureaucrats into the family’s life.

The rumbling usually begins when a parent’s incapacity requires decisions to be made for them. Dementia demands decisions and those decisions have to be made by someone. The rumblings spur the first signs of bumbling in the children especially when decisions have to be made in a time of crisis. They tend to frantically search for answers as to who can make decisions, especially if mum or dad haven’t made an Enduring Power of Attorney.

The bumbling then feeds the crumbling of relationships in a cesspool of disagreement and inertia. Conflict is the inevitable result.

Regrettably, few children in this situation realise the calamitous consequences of conflict, not just in terms of relationships and the best interests of mum or dad, but in who will actually end up making decisions for them – it won’t be the family.

I have repeatedly witnessed in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT), siblings competing with each other to be appointed their mum or dad’s decision maker. While competition as a concept is generally healthy, it is certainly not in QCAT. It tends to have an aversion to appointing competing family members. Competition is just another word for conflict and it will not usually appoint any conflicting parties because it will invariably exacerbate the conflict.

Instead it will usually appoint a bureaucrat such as the Public Trustee or Public Guardian. What was once ‘family business’ now becomes ‘public business’. Ponder the thought of that on your family. The word frustration, amongst many other less polite feelings, comes to mind

When you feel the gestation of conflict simmering in your family, ask yourself a question – do you want to kill the conflict or kill the family? If the former, don’t be too proud to ask for help which may be as simple as – how do we communicate better. Without that, family conflict will remain a killer.

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