Boomerangst: Turning Dilemmas into Discoveries – Disagreements About The Estate

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Grieving for a loved one is difficult enough, but even more so when dealing with disagreements about the estate. Here, how to solve sensitive issues with compassion.


Q. My mother, who was in her 90s and in assisted living, recently died. My sister and I, both in our 60s, have been settling what was left of her estate and dealing with the few personal effects in her small apartment. Here’s the problem: my mom had verbally promised a particular painting to my wife, who she was very fond of, but it seems to have ‘gone missing’. I diplomatically expressed concern to my sister, who I know also loved this painting, and while she didn’t outright deny taking it, her roundabout response made me suspicious. This painting is special to my wife and was meant for her. I don’t want to cause a rift with my only sibling by making accusations, but I can’t put this out of my head.

Jim, Halifax

A. The path to solving this issue is not a direct one and there are several reasons for that. “In a regular situation taking the painting would be rude and unthoughtful, but rules go out the window when someone dies and grief enters the picture,” says Ashley Howe, a Toronto-based couple and family therapist. “In this case, you need to start from a place of empathy. The way a conversation begins determines how it’s going to end. Think of this as a multi-staged process and conversation.”

Bottom line: do not confront your sister – at least not right now. Ms. Howe thinks there may be issues you’re not aware of. For example, your sister may feel your Mom didn’t give her enough or liked you better, or perhaps it was hurtful that the painting was promised to your wife and not her. You just don’t know. And now is not the best time to try and find out.

“People tend to get into protective mode when they’re grieving and they can get anxious and selfish just trying to survive,” says Ms. Howe. She suggests you instead try and show as much empathy towards your sister as possible and find commonalities in how you’re both experiencing the profound loss of a parent.

The painting may well be with your sister, but Ms. Howe predicts it could take six months to a year to get it back. So for now, just concentrate on being compassionate. Then, maybe six months from now try bringing up the subject again. But don’t say, ‘Mom promised me that painting – where is it?’

Instead, try something softer like, ‘by the way, just wondering if you have any idea where that painting of such and such is?’ Try and give your sister an honourable way out of the situation and give her time to get there. If that approach doesn’t work, you may eventually have to get more direct and say something like ‘the missing painting is hanging over everyone’s head and it’s not honouring Mom’s wishes.’ But in the end, emphasizes Ms. Howe, “the shortest route through confrontation is when everyone is as compassionate as possible.”


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A professional journalist for more than 25 years, Diane Sewell has written for some of the top newspapers and magazines in Canada and is a baby boomer herself. Her new blog “Boomerangst: Turning Dilemmas into Discoveries” is interactive with readers and focuses on life issues – like aging, dating, second marriages, sex, death, family and fashion. Diane will use her expertise to find the right expert to help solve your predicament, unearthing kernels of truth and quickly getting to the heart of the issue.