Grief or Greed? When Families Fight Over Material Possessions

The death of a loved one can have a major impact on family unity. Each individual family member must reconcile the end of their physical relationship with the person who died and their ongoing grief over the loss.  Unfortunately, this often means that at a time when the family could benefit from being closer than ever, misunderstandings and differences set them at a distance.

Many families have wound up befuddled when, after the death of a loved one, they find themselves at odds over the person’s material possessions. As a family, they typically don’t express their love through gifts, objects, or money. Their values have never been grounded in materialism in any way. Yet all of a sudden they are arguing over stuff; much of it stuff they hadn’t cared about or wanted until after their loved one died.

Some people are opportunistic and greedy. I won’t try and deny this reality. I’ve written for a grief website long enough to have heard the horror stories and, frankly, some of them will threaten to destroy your faith in humanity. However, I’m also aware of quite a few scenarios in which people’s actions have been labeled as selfish when, in reality, the motives behind them were far more complex than assumed.

Honestly, grief can make us all a little egocentric and it can be difficult to see another person’s feeling, actions, and grief reactions from any perspective but our own. There’s research to suggest that two common grief responses, anxiety and uncertainty, can increase a person’s tendency to assume that others see things exactly as they do.

Our human brains are even more predisposed to making assumptions about people who we are close with and who we perceive as similar to us – like family members –  perhaps because we assume these people share the same values, attitudes, and worldview.

Further, as we’ve noted before, the fundamental attribution error commonly causes people to attribute the behavior of others to personal traits – in these instances, traits like greed and selfishness – rather than taking the time to consider social, emotional, or situational influences on behavior.

In this article, we’d like to consider the influences beyond selfishness and greed that might explain your family member’s feelings and behavior related to a deceased loved one’s material possessions.

1. Different feelings about when and if belongings should be put away:

A common misunderstanding after the death of a loved one occurs when one family member is ready to put away, sell, or get rid of the deceased person’s belongings and another is not. The family member who is not ready may feel that the other person is pushy, callous, uncaring, greedy, or ready to move on much too quickly. However, there are a number of other explanations for their behavior, including (but not limited to):

  • People grieve at their own pace: One family member might feel ready to go through a loved one’s belongings, while another can’t stand the thought of it. Neither is right or wrong, they may just be grieving at different paces.
  • Different grieving styles: Although people typically think of emotions when they think about grief, some people grieve in a much more hands-on way. Researchers call these types of people, instrumental grievers. Instrumental grievers might feel better when they are taking action or doing something in their grief and one thing they can do is take care of their loved one’s personal belongings.
  • Avoidance:  Some people have a difficult time being around their deceased loved one’s belongings. These objects can bring up a lot of difficult emotion and, for many, become painful grief triggers. In an effort to avoid these triggers, certain family members may want to put away their loved one’s belongings right away. To those who see these objects differently, putting them away quickly may be perceived as uncaring when in actuality it comes from intense caring.

2. Sentimentality

It’s funny, some of the objects that become special and significant after a loved one’s death. If your family member is making a grab for specific items that belonged to your loved one, it may be because those items (sometimes inexplicably) have come to mean a lot to the person.

3. Continuing Bonds

In the days, weeks, and months following a loss, a sense of longing for the security and comfort of a loved one’s physical presence may be especially salient. In these early days, the idea of never seeing a loved one again is slowly becoming a reality. At the same time, people often feel insecure about their ability to maintain an ongoing connection with their deceased loved one and so they hold on very tight to physical reminders of them for fear that their memories are going to fade and their loved one will disappear. During these times, continuing bonds behavior may be used to maintain a sense of physical closeness to the person who has died and may involve stashing some of their physical objects.

4. The estate plans feel like a statement of love and/or value: 

Many people go to great lengths to make their estate plans known to their family. By doing so, they hopefully ensure their last words to family and friends are not those that are contained in a will. When these conversations happen, people have the opportunity to explain and clarify their intent and those impacted are able to ask questions. In many instances, this can eliminate lingering hurt feelings, unanswered questions, and sometimes worse, after the person dies. This is why so many professionals and organizations are out there advocating for people to make their wishes known!

That said, in many (many, many) instances people do not discuss their end-of-life wishes and estate plans for many (many, many) understandable reasons. This doesn’t always cause a problem. However, if the estate turns out to be surprising or unfair, those who are surprised or left out may interpret their loved one’s decisions as a statement of love or value (whether it is rational or not). Worse, it may cause confusion, questioning, resentment, or bitterness among surviving family members. Unfortunately, the only person who can explain the decision is gone and so people are left to try to make sense of things on their own.

5. Beliefs about what their deceased loved one would have wanted:

Family members typically want to do right by their deceased loved one and honor their wishes to the best of their ability. The problem is, as we’ve just established, people don’t always walk around making their end of life wishes known to their family and friends. Even if they have discussed some things, it’s sometimes impossible the cover everything down to what you want to be done with your necktie collection. Ultimately, some decisions will need to be made, and in the absence of clarity, there are times when people are left speculating and, unfortunately, disagreeing about what the person would have wanted for their affairs and personal effects.


January 28, 2019

10 responses on "Grief or Greed? When Families Fight Over Material Possessions"

  1. This makes me terribly sad. I was hoping to find a solution to help my family make it through this terrible time but all I fell now is hopeless. Does anyone have any positive outcomes?

  2. My story is one of disbelief. A good friend of mine contacted me some two months ago informing me that his grilfriend of 7yrs was informed by doctors that she had two months to live. That she was dying. Sadden by the news he ask if I could move in with them because he needed help. I agreed only if I would pay rent and pay my own way during my stay. She pleeded with me to stay after her death and help my friend in dealing with her passing, to be there for him like the brothers we are. I agreed with some slight concerns about how things would play out after her passing. You see she paid cash for the townhouse one block off the beach in a very high in area. Financial holdings of over 300k, with a little under 10k a month income from verious scores. Coming from a family with money I have seen the greed if family members after death. I exspected the worst. The worst came in the form of a daughter that she has not communicated with for over 10yrs. Informed about her mothers death and the money she would be leaving behind she made a bee line for the beach. 1st vist which lasted a week her bank card came up missing when she and my friend went out drinking, without her for the first time during her vist making my friend believe he lost the card valued at 10k. Keep that figure in mind as I continue my story. This caused friction between my friend and his girl that continue to this day. When I came in from work he was angry because the daughter was not trying help in cancelling the card but being soooooo drunk at the time he was confused on what to do. I contacted a friend luckly were she banks gave him the information required (over hearing the daughter talking to her boyfriend about her coming home). The card was cancelled a new one issued and the daughter was not to happy about my involment. The following day the boyfriend shows up (13hr drive). After returning from work the following day I was informed by my friend that she was going to the bank the following day to take out hospital inkt to be drip off urchase a car for her daughter. Thankfully I thought, because she seemed to have lost her I. D. The bank would not allow her to take any money out. However, the daughter told her mother about a car she wanted to buy where she lived. The cost? You guessed it 10k. As my friend disagreed to the purchase she concided to his request. However, phone calls between the daughter and her resulted in her wanting to put my friend out asking him to leave. I intervined reasoning with her and relaxing the situation which was successful until the daughter returned the following week. When I came in from work I was informed that the daughter not the boyfriend is on her voint babk account, she is on the deed to the townhouse, and she gave her you guessed it 10k. During all this time her health was failing needing to go to the hospital, only to be dropped off at the hospital as they made there way out of town. She was hospitalized for several days and the daughter was to busy to come see her. My friend and are in consistant arugements, and the daughter is returning this weekend with one stipulation. That I stay in a hotel during there stay. My friend was convienced that he had nothing to worry about. She is dying very soon now and the daughter has come in a changed things for him in away that he might not recover. We are in our early 60s, the daughter 44. I got him, I do very well for myself she ask me to promise to be there for him and I will.

  3. My dad died 13/11/2016.My mum was visiting her daughter my half sister in the USA. Dad had not told anyone he had cancer.
    Before his death My mum and dad lived apart even though still married. He would visit her as and when, this went on for years.
    My dad fell out with my brother that summer after horrendous tantrums while on a holiday in Spain that my dad paid for. My brother a very self centred man who lives on his own,had very strong opinions on how dad should do things, as in with his rental property etc.. He would say “I will be sorting everything out, be the man of the family if dad died.”I used to ignore his ranting,
    My dad organised for my boys and I to stay in a hotel in his town so we can spend more than a day visiting him as he had no where for us to stay (he lived in a flat rented his other property). He set the date for October half term. I think he was gonna tell me what was happening but he left it too late the cancer got him.
    The Wednesday we found out he was in hospital,
    In the hospital my brother took over even to the point saying I don’t need to talk to doctors about dad as he was laying on in intensive care. My dad hadn’t even died yet my brother had put his watch on picked up his keys and wallet. I was in such a state I really didn’t think til later. He then started ringing my mum, who is In shock scared, confused and grieveing in USA telling her, A day after dad had died, I should go back home to my family as he was dealing with it and I was acting like a looney and upsetting him. I had said” we need to do this together” as in register his death etc.. Later I find out him and my mum had had conversations while she’s in USA days after dad’s death that he will do everything. My mum hadn’t even got back to the UK he had bullied mum while she’s in no fit state. He didn’t wait til mum got back to UK he went straight to my dad’s flat and his rental propertys. Burnt paper work. Then they both say there was no Will. A week later travels over to my dad’s clears flat without a word. Selling stuff to his mates. I just wanted something that was dad’s.Mum seemed to think this was totally OK he was just sorting it for her.
    This is only the beginning 2years on. My mum and Brother have stuck together like glue (bearing in mind over the years I have always been there for mum and dad . She’d stay at mine for weeks and I’d visit dad and mum a 8 hour round trip with my kids. Go up to her if she needed anything take her to hospital appointments which obviously I never even thought about til Dad died . My brother always said he was to busy and couldn’t afford to take a day off. Now he has been like a leech for two years staying with her for up to a month at one stage selling her house without any of the family knowing.. I have been shut out of everything . I have told them, gently and aggressively how I feel… its like talking to a brick wall. My half sister has been shut out too as she stepped in when my brother was found out on different occasions what he had been doing.
    I haven’t been able to properly grieve for dad as the hatred and anger plus waves of true discussed consume me about my brothers and my mums treatment of me. My brother I have heard has helped mum write her Will. He has taken all that was to take for himself. My dad was a musician he had lots of instruments. My youngest son plays sax we /he wasn’t given any. My brother sold them and kept the best for himself.
    I believe grief can affect us all in different ways but this is beyond behaviour I ever thought acceptable. Grief is also an opportunity for hurting innocent people /family in his case. I have lost my dad but also my mum and brother.

  4. Wow this is Exactly what happen to My FAMILY,, foster brooks and Rodey McDowell .. Were bears and carred my grandmother’s coffin.. This is a matter i was lied to about my familys estate. The reality was it was my. Mothers . if you like you my read the LA Times in 1987 step daughter maryann hayden killed step father for financial gain eddie gay was his name. So my cousin got everything, because of what the estate said its a big lie he was coached .. Im still fighting this she won’t even give me a family anything of memories.. Hope this made sence.. But this is happening to me. There is much more to the story.

  5. My Husband passed away on 08 June 2017 2 days before my birthday, ever since my Husband was hospitalized I was not able to see my Husband this kids have been give me hell ever since, they were never there for their father now all of a sudden they are fighting me for His earthly possession, they even went to the High Court to contest my marriage certificate as in South Africa when lobola is paid to the bride family it is considered as customarily marriage it is valid. I opposed their court order and im still waiting for they response. my Husband was on a plan to draw up the will and I know what He wishes were if those kids only knew especially the other one the father said he must not even attend His funeral because she was to rude to Him calling Him a drunkard but what she did she was the one who signed the notice of death at the hospital. But God will always fight for me and my Husband will take good care of as well. I always asked myself when are these kids finding time to grief & mourn because i’m griefing & mourning for my late Husband with respect 7 love as we loved each other very much. when I say kids I’m talking about age34( married),26,27 years old girls

  6. My mom passed away 4 months ago…she was my best friend and always made me feel better. I have 3 older siblings who have now decided that I should not be able to have any of my mom’s possessions because they believe I will hand down to my daughter (who is a recovering alcoholic and not to mention was probably closer to her grandma than anyone). My older siblings have all had their share of time not talking to my mom…3 months before she died of cancer one of my siblings even told her that our step mom was a better mother then she was. I was her constant…I never went more then 2 days without talking to her…called her everyday…. I don’t understand them when they say I don’t deserve anything of my mom’s….can someone help because I’m really falling apart here…

  7. on the 2nd of Aug this year i responded to a whatsapp message that my grandmother was having breathing diffulties.I had spoken to her around 7am where she indicated that she would let me know if the breathing became more difficult – but she was fine.That message came in at around 1215pm.That 20min drive seemed longer and when i got to my uncle’s place she was covered in a bed sheet – gone!She chose to sleep outside the house under a tree, and just died!
    I am so hurt and feel responsible for not taking her to the hosp in the morning- she was just 69, to me that wasn’t old.I hoped she could live longer and i could get time to do things for her and fetch her to visit my place that Friday.
    I am so hurt and can’t get over the loss.
    how do i get over such guilt and accept that she is gone?

    • My eldest uncle is already chicking the step grandkids that my granny stayed with for years.He says the house is his.There are two other kids that my granny had.I am upset but as a grankid not sure what my right in this is.I have my own properties and am married with my own kids.

  8. Great article. My husband passed away 7-16-16 and his Mom passed away 8-21-16 without a will. My husband’s family told us we , my son and I who at the time was 16 got nothing. There are 4 siblings left to divide her stuff. Me and my husband’s brother went to court against the 3 sisters. Still nothing has been done as I write this, still tied up in court. His family whom I have been a part of for 30 years does not talk to me or my son. They don’t know if we are alive or dead. I cannot stress enough how bad this has hurt my son and I. No amount of money can make up for the hurt. So yes it is sad that material things can tear a family apart. So basically when I buried my husband, I buried them too. Life is short and you take nothing with you. I cannot stress enough to please make a will. Get your affairs in order for your loved ones. Nothing has been worth what my son and I have been through. Them being there for my son and I would have meant more to us than any money or material possessions. Love one another and be kind.

    • I am not sure what country you live in but I am fairly certain that in Britain if you were legally married, you would inherit everything from your husband if he left no will. His siblings claims would be irrelevant, and carry no weight in law. If you were not married however, the situation is completely different, no matter how long you have been together. You would not inherit anything if there was no will, but your son would be regarded as his heir, not his siblings. If he is under the age of majority, his inheritance would be put in trust for him.

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