Family feuds and shattered families

I HAD a wonderful time exchanging notes with the participants of my family business talk last Friday at the Holiday Inn in Makati. It was a sold out event with whole families coming in droves and occupying several tables armed with loads of questions related to governance.

To those who attended, many thanks! It is my sincere desire that the key learnings highlighted in the talk can translate into actual application and pocket wins leading to harmony and growth in your respective family businesses.

Family feuds in the Philippines, and elsewhere in the world, have always been about money. Lots of money. However, although estate fights are commonly perceived to be just about money, there is almost always more to a family war than just the money. Many estate disputes are sewn by the seeds of jealousy, greed, thirst for control, bitterness, hatred, and hurt feelings resulting from real or perceived preferential treatment by a parent.

The infighting becomes more intense if the patriarch or matriarch had another family on the side or children from previous marital relationships. A significant number of inheritance disputes also involve testators and beneficiaries who come from dysfunctional families, are mentally ill or addicted.

According to lawyer P. Mark Accettura, author of the book “Blood & Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance and What To Do About It,” the combatants can always trace their problems back several years, if not all the way back to childhood. It is clear that inheritance conflict doesn’t come out of nowhere; it is a continuation of long-term relationship problems that resurface upon the illness or death of a loved one. And they aren’t just about money or greed; they are about much more. But what is it that so often drives people to wage war against their own flesh and blood over a loved one’s estate?

There are five basic reasons families fight in matters of inheritance. Author Mark Accettura accurately points to the following:

First, humans are genetically predisposed to competition and conflict; our psychological sense of self is intertwined with the approval that an inheritance represents, especially when the decedent is a parent; we are genetically hardwired to be on the lookout for exclusion, sometimes finding it when it doesn’t exist; families fight because the death of a loved one activates the death anxieties of those left behind; and finally, in some cases, one or more members of a family has a partial or full-blown personality disorder that causes them to distort and escalate natural family rivalries into personal and legal battles.

Accettura cites that these sources of family conflict are not mutually exclusive; in most cases, some combination of the five elements present themselves in a combustible cocktail of family rivalry and conflict. Case in point: The bitter family squabble over the estate left by lawyer and businessman Potenciano “Nanoy” Ilusorio, which included shares in Philippine Communications Satellite Corp. (Philcomsat) and the Baguio Country Club, valued at between P1 and P2 billion pesos at the time of his death in 2001.

Pitting one set of siblings against another, the Ilusorio family feud has dragged on for more than 15 years now, clogged the court system with more than 300 legal suits and counter-suits, and entertained the idly curious, as it played out in the media over the years. To quote media covering the conflict, “It’s not the first ‘prominent/wealthy family’ inheritance battle waged nor will it certainly be the last, but the ongoing estate litigation of Potenciano ‘Nanoy’ Ilusorio’s heirs has emerged as one of the longest, nastiest, most public, no-holds-barred litigious family feuds in Philippine history or in the annals of jurisprudence.”

Far from easing tensions, the death last Feb. 17, 2016 of Potenciano’s widow, Erlinda “Nena” Kalaw-Ilusorio, in New York City, seems to have raised the simmering bad blood between the rival family factions back to boiling point.

In a newspaper article that came out two months ago, the rival factions are now said to be fighting over the ashes of the dearly departed, a weird echo of the tug-of-war they played over the custody of their aged and non compos mentis father just before his death in 2001, and quite possibly, a prelude to renewed fighting on the legal front over her estate, on top of the pending tussle over other Ilusorio assets.

To be continued…

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