Clan Dynamics for Estate Advisors

I am not a psychologist. I am not a cultural anthropologist or neuroscientist. I am an estate planning lawyer who has mediated family disputes about money and business for more than two decades.

Years of working with psychologist colleagues has contributed to my working understanding of family dynamics. I try also to understand families from the perspective of cultural anthropology and neuroscience.

Quite often parties to a family mediation declare…

“This dispute is not about money!”

…only later to admit:

“This dispute is not about money…altogether.”

The disputes I mediate are very much about money. But they arise out of family relationships and circumstances – clan dynamics -- that both intensify and complicate dispute resolution. In many of my cases, a better understanding of clan dynamics during the planning stage might have avoided a painful and costly dispute. In all of my mediations, clan dynamics play a powerful role in resolving, managing, minimizing or avoiding family disputes. These are some basic insights about clan dynamics that guide my way.

1.    Human beings have primal needs that can overpower our rational selves.  To ignore these needs is to misread the human condition. 

Remaining deep within our DNA are powerful drives and urges to survive and to reproduce. These genes were passed down through our cave-dwelling ancestors. Our brains and bodies are largely unchanged since the famous cave walls at Lascaux were painted 18,000 years ago. 

Civilization and enlightenment have not altered our DNA needs. They persist and can overpower us at times trumping reason, logic, culture, even common sense. “Let’s put emotions aside and be reasonable” suggests we can turn off our DNA needs. We can’t. The familiar phrase “touchy-feely” may reflect insensitivity to the presence and power of DNA needs.

2.    A primary task of modern clans (families) is to civilize our DNA needs. The family clan functions as mentor, refiner, disciplinarian, nurturer and caregiver.

Today we better understand DNA needs, though not entirely. Some needs are conscious; others dwell below our level of awareness. Societies and cultures try to regulate how we express our needs, encouraging some behaviors while punishing others. But the primary task of meeting DNA needs still falls to family clans. Well-meaning families try hard. But their task is a tall order. As members grow and individual needs multiply, family resources can be stretched thin. 

There may be more than enough money but seldom enough time or emotional energy to meet all the myriad needs of infants, ancients, and everyone in between. Fortunately however, families are the sole source of some of our greatest joys and satisfactions – the ultimate fulfillment of a deep DNA need to belong.

3.    Unmet needs can generate psychic pain, family hostility and fragment relationships. 

Sometimes needs go unattended because the nurturer is weary or neglectful or diverted, disinterested or even clueless. Or the needy family member is maddeningly difficult to satisfy. Or both. 

Whatever the underlying causes, unmet needs can hurt, and hurt generates anger, and anger provokes a lashing out. Those hurt by the lashing out become angry themselves and lash back 

“I needed you but you ignored me!” 

“But you’re never satisfied!” 

Thus the cycle of hostility escalates. 

Meeting family needs is unrelenting hard work and not always successful. Fortunately, most families who do their best are rewarded for it. Those who don’t try suffer the consequences. Criminal gangs capitalize on unmet needs. 

4.    We have a deep DNA need to belong to a clan. Alienation from clan can be exceedingly painful. It can be challenging to square shared wealth with DNA needs that originated in scarcity.

DNA needs unified cave clans in their daily struggle to survive amid scarcity. An example: cave parents allocated scarce food among those most fit to help the clan survive – the largest and strongest siblings. For their own survival, smaller siblings had to wrest food away from the big ones by whatever means available: theft, cunning, charm, trickery, joining forces with other siblings, etc. Sibling rivalry was critical a survival skill. Some say these cave rivalries became coded in siblings’ DNA. 

Survival rivalries that originated in scarcity persist even among modern siblings who share great abundance. Today’s family clan is linked by:
  • genetics, 
  • a common history, and
  • shared values and meaning, 
  • all connected by relationships that stretch back across generations.

Call this linkage the family clan’s “relational estate”. Families in all financial circumstances share relational estates of some sort. Wealth-sharing can modify relational estates. Family members may also connect through common investments. Financial statements may further reflect family values and meaning. Paid surrogates may intercede as nurturers, mentors and caregivers to some DNA needs. 

To survive during the cave days, one needed a clan for protection. To go it alone or to be ostracized from one’s clan meant certain death. The powerful DNA longing to belong to a clan that feeds our needs survives today. To be outcast or to reject family is to drift like an astronaut on a spacewalk whose tether has parted. Hopefully, as wry poet Robert Frost muses: 

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Frost’s poem tells of a hired man who had no home to die in; no clan to comfort his last days. 

5.    Psychologists view families as systems. Too many psychologists view money as metaphor rather than real.

Psychologists perceive the family clan as a system in which needs and nurture dynamically interact. The family system is an organism somehow greater than the sum of its individual members. Unfortunately, most psychotherapists are wealth averse, prone to dismiss disputes about shared wealth as a mere metaphor for more basic psychic struggles. 

“They’re really not fighting about money. They’re acting out childhood rivalries and unconscious anxieties….”
In my view, money is both metaphoric and very real. 

“My inheritance further connects me to my clan. It reflects both my father’s love and approval and undergirds my financial security.”

6.    To perpetuate one’s clan is a deep need. Families continue to relate to deceased relatives. Wealth transfer is only a part of one’s ultimate legacy.

Perhaps akin to reproduction, there’s a DNA need to perpetuate one’s clan. Ask anyone who’s held a first grandchild for the first time. Family clans have ways of perpetuating relationships with deceased members, a form of shared immortality. Part of one’s legacy is to remain connected to the clan after death. 

As we age, we grow more concerned about how we will be remembered. One tangible reminder is wealth left to our survivors. But estate planning should do more than transfer wealth with minimum taxes. 

Optimum estate planning should transfer wealth in ways that fortify the future well-being of the family clan. 

* Excerpted with permission from Mr. Le Van’s forthcoming article, CLAN PLANNING:   PREPARING CLIENTS TO DISCUSS THEIR ESTATE PLANS WITH THEIR BENEFICIARIES in Koren, Estate and Personal Financial Planning Thompson-West (2007)

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