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Facing Fear of Death

Estate planning causes people to face their own mortality; helping clients cope with this reality is vital.

Clients must confront several common fears associated with death and mortality when contemplating estate planning. Helping them overcome these hurdles is imperative for any advisor in beginning to craft a successful plan.

Mortality Salience

Estate planning causes people to face their own mortality. Mortality salience plays a role in estate planning by often causing people to put off the process for another day, despite its apparent glaring need in particular situations. According to the research of Dr. Russell N. James III, the forms of avoidance of mortality salience are:

  • Distraction: “I’m too busy to worry about that right now.”
  • Differentiation: “It doesn’t apply to me because I come from a family of actuarial longevity.”
  • Denial: “These death worries are overstated.”
  • Delay: “I plan on worrying about death…later.”
  • Departure: “I’m going to stay away from death reminders.”

According to Dr. James, external realities occasionally break through avoidance of mortality salience. Illness, injury, advancing age, death of a close friend or family member, making travel plans or intentionally planning for one’s death through estate planning can cause people to tend to their estate planning. However, these external realities are unpredictable and sporadic. The issue of procrastination and avoidance in estate planning is far more complex than just avoidance of mortality salience.    

Death Anxiety

Death anxiety is a complex phenomenon that represents the blend of many different thought processes and emotions: the dread of death, the horror of physical and mental deterioration, the essential feeling of aloneness, the ultimate experience of separation anxiety, sadness about the eventual loss of self, and extremes of anger and despair about a situation over which we have no control.

These fears can cause people to act differently, even irrationally, from how they typically would under different circumstances. These actions often lead to conflict because the survivors joust for a piece of the decedent’s property, persona or symbolism; those people seek to assuage their fears and comfort themselves for their loss. Psychologists posit that all humans develop an innate ongoing existential fear of death from a relatively early age.

Psychiatrists have determined that there are at least seven reasons why people have death anxiety:

  1. No more life experiences.
  2. Fear of what will happen to their bodies post-death.
  3. Uncertainty as to fate if there’s life after death.
  4. Inability to care for their dependents.
  5. Grief caused to relatives and friends.
  6. All their plans and projects will come to an end.
  7. The process of dying will be painful. 

There are at least three defenses that individuals commonly employ to withstand death anxiety:

  1. Avoidance of talk about mortality and other reminders of mortality, so-called “mortality salience.”
  2. Minimization of mortality through jokes about death and feeling that the concern about mortality isn’t pressing enough for action at the moment.
  3. A desire for symbolic immortality, which is a form of autobiographical heroism, in which individuals take actions that solidify and perpetuate causes and provide for those who are important to them. 

Fears of Estate Planning

People have at least 12 fears about estate planning, of which death anxiety is but one. They fear:

  1. Contemplating death (death anxiety).
  2. Not doing the right thing.
  3. The unknown.
  4. Hurting someone’s feelings/creating animosity/post-death squabbles.
  5. Estate planners.
  6. The estate-planning process.
  7. Running out of money/losing security.
  8. Changes in the law.
  9. Facing reality.
  10. Loss of flexibility.
  11. Loss of privacy.
  12. Probate.

Most of these fears are irrational and can be safely and properly addressed in a well-constructed plan. Estate planning also has therapeutic and anti-therapeutic consequences, the latter of which the estate planner must identify and work to ameliorate. In fact, estate planning, once done and finalized, is known to reduce death anxiety.

Effects of Death Anxiety

Death of a loved one or a friend conjures up two fears in most of us:

  1. the loss of a source of safety and security; and
  2. a fear of our own mortality.

This often causes a split in the ego,as people trick themselves through a cognitive distortion into thinking that their own death isn’t something that they need be concerned about at present. This typically results in repression of thoughts of death, as they’re simply too painful to be allowed into a person’s consciousness. The splitting of the ego can lead to depression and other forms of psychosis.

Here are two examples of cognitive distortions: 

  • People often compare themselves to individuals who are known to have abused their bodies, for example, Keith Richards, and say that if he can live that long after having done what he did, they’ll survive too until at least his age or older.
  • Older persons, whose death is more imminent, focus on medical research or make deals with themselves to get healthier, and by so doing, think they’ll live longer.

One potential consequence of death anxiety is the deterioration of the testator’s decision-making capabilities. The fear forces people into making short-sighted or ill-advised decisions that will have a lasting impact on their loved ones. Fear of making these types of bad decisions also flows out of death anxiety, as people are reluctant to act on their estate planning for fear that they’ll make a bad decision. People often cope with death anxiety by making difficult decisions quickly, thereby abbreviating the stressful experience. These swift decisions often are bad ones.

This oft-truncated decision-making process usually involves an erratic method of selecting information for consideration, an inadequate amount of time spent considering that information and evaluating alternatives and a lack of willingness to re-evaluate after the decision is made. Getting it done is more important than how or what was done.

Humans are the only species who know cognitively that life is finite and that we’re mortal. However, that cognitive knowledge, combined with the desire to procreate and survive, create what Mario Mikulincer, Victor Florian and Gilad Hirschberger call “an irresolvable existential paradox.” A human’s survival mode causes them to put off thoughts of their own demise because survival is the goal, despite clear signs of eventual mortality. Hundreds of studies have proven that when confronted with mortality salience, humans adhere even more passionately to their views of the world. Humans resort to lots of methods to avoid the fear brought on by mortality salience, including religion, work, relationships, exercise and wealth accumulation.  

Terror management theory (inspired by the work of Ernest Becker and Otto Rank) instructs that humans grasp for any kind of immortality to cope with mortality salience, including symbolic immortality. Symbolic immortality includes our belief in an afterlife, our descendants, our favorite institutions and our body of work, wealth and accomplishments. Estate planning properly done gives clients symbolic immortality.

Separation anxiety, which is articulated in attachment theory, also contributes to inheritance conflict. Attachment theory was formulated in the 1930s by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst who worked with troubled children. It postulates that infants will go to great lengths, for example, crying and clenching, to prevent being separated from their parents. Attachment theory has been extended to adults and goes a long way to explaining why adults do what they do when a loved one passes away. Grieving loved ones often scramble for and squabble over items that symbolically resemble the decedent’s persona or successes to which they can remain associated, like grandma’s china, dad’s watch or family portraits. The financial value of these items is often irrelevant.

According to the late clinical psychologist Edwin Schneidman, the closest that most people get to acknowledgment of their own mortality is a view of the world after our death and how we’ll be remembered—which he called the “post-self.” Schneidman viewed each person’s property as an extension of one’s self. Estate planning could be construed as one of the last opportunities to foster one’s post-self.

As mentioned previously, estate planning, once faced, confers a form of symbolic immortality on the testator, who, in essence, gets to continue to influence and participate in the lives of the beneficiaries after death. But, fewer than half of Americans make a will. Why? Fears of estate planning for most exceed the purely psychological payoff of symbolic immortality and peace of mind. 

Reasons for Inheritance Fights

A common reason why some people don’t engage in estate planning is a fear that their families will fight after their death, when their motives and activities will be subjected to unwanted intense public scrutiny. Because it provides a medium for the public airing of the dirty laundry and family secrets of testators and their families, the mere possibility of an estate squabble may cause clients stress and anxiety during the estate-planning process and cause them to put it off for that reason alone.

Why do people fight over inheritances? According to elder law attorney, P. Mark Accettura, there are five basic reasons:

  • Humans are predisposed to competition and conflict.
  • Our psychological self is intertwined with the approval that receiving an inheritance confers. 
  • Humans are genetically predisposed toward looking for exclusions.
  • The death of a loved one is mortality salience that triggers the accompanying death anxiety in humans.
  • The possibility of existence of a personality disorder that causes family members to distort and escalate natural family rivalries into personal and legal battles.

While I agree with much of Accettura’s theory, he’s of the opinion that estate planning properly done through intergenerational communication for the right reasons can significantly reduce the proclivity to quarrel over inheritance.

I believe that estate planning properly done can enhance a family’s emotional well-being. On the other hand, if poorly done, without communication between the givers and receivers, it can exacerbate fears and worsen inheritance fights.


This is an adapted version of the author’s original article in the October issue of Trusts & Estates.

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