Case Studies – Estates & Family Values: The Ghost of Authority

An elderly couple I had been representing for 10 years came to my office with a family dilemma. One of their sons Family business image, estate planning tipshad quit the family business a few years before, gone to work for a competitor and lost his job. He still owned stock in the family business and wanted his job back. The other children in the business did not want to let him back in, and the parents came to me to find out what his legal remedies were and how they could facilitate a solution.

A red flag went up when I heard that he was no longer working in the company but still owned stock. Another red flag went up when I heard he had been let go by the competitor. The mother felt he should not be able to go back to the family business as he had left it, and the other children did not want him back. The father, who was no longer the head of the family business but remained the authority figure, remained quiet.

They asked me if all of the children could come into the office and talk with me and with the parents. I agreed to that. The son who wanted to be employed again did not attend. He was suspicious of the meeting.

During that meeting the other children told me emphatically that the entire time he worked in the business he was trouble. He felt he knew more than anyone else and was difficult to get along with. He walked out the door for more money when the company was having a difficult time, and under no circumstances did they want him back. The children had two issues – they wanted him to sell his stock back to them, and they believed that because their father did not tell him that he could not come back, it did not matter what they said; he was going to believe he still had a chance to be employed again.

The father was in that meeting and still would not say that the son could not have another shot at employment. The father felt bad that he was having a hard time supporting his family. It became clear to me in that meeting that this was not a sandbox I could be or should be in. I represented the parents and this was not an issue that dealt with them directly.

I did see the ghost and it was the ghost of authority. The father had merely a vestige of the authority he once had, but that was enough to keep the game in suspense. Everyone was waiting for him to take action, but his age and his switch from business to fatherly concerns had benched him. I felt it was unlikely he was ever going to be able to do it. The family was stuck and no legal mechanism would unstick it.

I referred the family to a psychologist who worked with the father, the children in the business and the son who sought re-entry. He was able to bring the ghost of authority to light and open up communication among all family members that led to an acceptable resolution. The son was cashed out and is now otherwise employed. All family members still speak and spend holidays together. Although the parents came to me for legal guidance, this was not a legal dilemma.

As the population ages and as we live longer with reasonable levels of mental competence, the ghost of authority may become more prevalent and very real – particularly in families of first generation wealth where the wealth has been created by a very strong, controlling patriarch or matriarch. The issues pertaining to when that person should no longer have the “final say” are complicated. It is very difficult to change the “movie script” and switch the lead actors to supporting roles. In many such families there is not room for discussion until the older generation begins it, and therefore the older generation’s understanding that the conversation has a time and a place is critical to sustainable legacy.


Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released her new book, “It’s More Than Money, Protect Your Legacy” available at To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,


  1. Monica Weissmann says:

    Hi Patricia,

    I read your story with much interest. Well done – good story , well told, holding my interest!
    But, …I am confused about the Conflict Of Interest that the psychologist in the story had when he was working with all the parties (father, mother, siblings in the business and the black sheep not employed in the business, but still a sharehoder) – in the same time …?
    Could you clarify ? It seems to me each of the parties (at least the black sheep) should have had a different psychologist to work with …isn’t it?

    Monica Weissmann, CFP, CIM, MEE

    • Monica,
      Thank you for your comment- they each had the right to do so. Family dyanmics are always important and in this case they did not think retaining their own was essential- and he allowed the psychologist to speak to all. It is tricky ground – for sure. Patricia

  2. As a mental health professional and family firm consultant I am glad to hear a referral for family issues to a professional in the field. Many legal/estate planning/accounting professionals take on these issues (often for good reasons . . . trust, efficiency, cost, etc.) but are often not prepared to deal with complex issues in ways that preserve the family. Some of these professionals, of course, do work with complex issues and do an admirable job, mostly due to experience, but others . . . . All professionals need professional colleagues to refer to for specialized problems. I regularly refer to my legal colleagues for matters outside my scope of practice. It’s just good professional service!

  3. Kudos to you, Patricia, for being sensitive to the undercurrents at play in this family dynamic. Two old adages come to mind. “I dance with who brung me,” referring to the fact that the parents, not the children, are your clients. The other is “To a carpenter everything looks like a nail,” referring of course to your wise decision to refer the family to a psychologist rather than trying to “fix” it with a legal solution.

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