As an Islamic Estate Planning Attorney, I have become a student of family estrangement. I have seen much of it. In my past litigation work, my cases tended to be inheritance disputes between siblings. These disputes would frequently cause ruptures in families that are likely to last for generations.
In Islam, shares of inheritance are ordained. Many of the complaints inherent in family disputes that arise from inheritance do not exist when individuals plan correctly in a manner consistent with the Islamic inheritance rules. It is a wondrous and beautiful thing.
Fault Lines- my latest favorite book
Occasionally, I may come across a book and think to myself, “what a remarkable contribution to humanity.” The book by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., “Fault Lines“-really is that. It is about mending fractured families. When brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews and uncles, parents and children, and other relatives cut each other off (“I’m done”), the effect is more than a momentary catharsis. It is a wrecking ball for your family.
Pillemer, among other reasons, discusses a lack of “legacy thinking.” When a brother decides, in a huff, that he is not going to speak to his brother anymore, he is not only cutting off that relationship. He is cutting off everything that comes after it. He denies the ability of cousins to grow up together. Family is social capital. That includes leaning on a broad group of people for advice, contacts, and a myriad of resources. If you have a large family where people get along and love each other, that is wealth. Robbing people of that wealth is a moral crime.
In a hadith, it was reported Muhammad (sws) said
“No sin deserves quicker punishment from Allah Almighty for its doer in the world, along with what is prepared for him in the Hereafter, than transgression and severing family ties” (Tirmidhī).
Estrangement is super-common
According to the author’s survey, about 27% of Americans admitted to estrangement from a relative. About 10% of parents and children were estranged. About 85% of those estranged had been for a year or more.
Estrangement is a massive problem. I know from my clients that estrangement is a chronic problem in the Muslim community. It is also a more solvable problem than you might think.
Pillemer based his book on the author’s study on fractured families and how they reconciled. It provides concrete strategies that many people have used to develop better relationships among their family members. Some of the author’s stories include reconcilers where family members have acted in toxic, abusive and even criminal ways. There is a whole lot I can say about this book, and I expect to go back to it several times. But I want to focus this post on how they happen.
According to Pillemer (and this would be maybe obvious to you after reading it), estrangements happen a few different ways:
The Long Arm of the Past
This category includes trauma that is occurred because of challenging circumstances during childhood and adolescence, parental favoritism, or other factors. One of the things to appreciate about this “long arm” is that it is pretty long. Folks can maintain estrangements in ways that seem to transcend time and space.
For example, it is difficult for some families to identify close relatives (heirs in Islam) because of an estrangement that resulted from partition in the Indian subcontinent. Partition is a distant historical event that took place over seven decades ago halfway around the world. Yet, the trauma from this still reverberates and is a cause of estrangement.
The legacy of divorce
Many will identify with this one. Divorce sometimes brings out the worst in people. It is common for children to take sides and to cut off the offending parent. The hostility that continues between the former spouses and other family members may make reconciliation difficult.
The Legacy of Marriage
Pillemer calls this “the problematic in law.” I would, however, tie this not to either a daughter-in-law or mother-in-law acting in problematic ways. Instead, it was a marriage that failed add increasing love, kinship, and harmony, for whatever reason. It treats relationships as a “zero-sum game” where there are winners and losers. There is an ongoing struggle between the “family of origin” and the “family of marriage”- something must give.
I often tell people during my talks on inheritance that the best advice I could ever give about estate planning is not “go to an Islamic Estate Planning lawyer,” “get an Islamic living trust, or “follow the Islamic Rules of Inheritance.” Those are good things you should do. But the most important decision is who you marry. If you make a mistake here, no lawyer on earth can save you.
Money and inheritance
Since I am an estate planning attorney, I am intimately familiar with this reason for estrangement, which may be the most common. In some ways, a dispute about money or inheritance is not really about those things. They tend to connect with the “long arm of the past” and every other category here. Money and inheritance disputes tend to be little more than a trigger to a loaded gun.
Sometimes, family members don’t show up to things they were supposed to, say a wedding or funeral. A younger brother may not speak to his older brother for many years because he had a lame excuse for not showing up at his niece’s wedding.
Sometimes, people get stubborn about family politics that people not immediately in that situation would have trouble understanding. Sometimes, we need to let things go.
Values and Lifestyle Differences
Some who grew up in the same family might have dramatically different values. What’s more, there may now be unmet expectations that those differences need to be affirmed and accepted. The person who does not swallow those values for those expectations becomes “toxic”- a frequent justification for breaking family ties. This dynamic often happens when family members end up becoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans. The child may have left Islam, become an evangelical atheist who cannot stop talking about how idiotic it is to believe in angels, or a Christian who keeps telling his Muslim parents they are going to hell.
Implications for Inheritance
I have long maintained a policy of turning away clients who want to disinherit their Muslim children. Children often grow up to be a disappointment to their parents. That does not give them the right to commit an injustice, either estrangement or disinheritance. Yes, there is a hadith about non-Muslims not inheriting from Muslims. This rule of inheritance is part of our fiqh, but that is different from cutting off relations. I have clients who, despite this rule, do whatever they can to include and be merciful to their non-Muslim children. Sometimes, they do come back to Islam.
Short of a relative leaving Islam, you cannot “disinherit” a child. Inheritance is not a tool you can use to persuade your child of a correct course of action or impose on your child views and values they no longer share. If your child married the wrong person, talks to you in a disrespectful tone or has a tattoo of Harry Potter on her arm, well sometimes those are the breaks. Inheritance is a right, literally a right ordained by Allah. It’s not a weapon you can deploy. At least not in Islam.
What you should do
If you know anyone afflicted by the scourge of family estrangement, you should check out Pillemer’s book. It’s worth the read. You can also forward this post if you found it beneficial!
To discuss getting an Islamic Estate Plan for your family, you can schedule a 15-minute mini-consultation with me by clicking here.