Inheritance: Your Place in the Family

Posted: 11 years ago | By: Christine Somers | In: General | Read Time: 5 minutes, 4 seconds

{the view from our lakehouse}

My father's philosophy was clear, inheritance was all about your place in the family. So it was no surprise that my parent's estate was split evenly between my brother, sister and me. My sister and I did joke that if my mother had her way all their worldly goods would go to the dog, her favorite in the family. But in the end, we knew that my parents were sending a message that we were all equally valuable to them. My parents could have taken one of several paths when it came to the final distribution of their property. They could have left it all to my brother, the only male in our family, left it to the oldest, me or included their grandchildren in the inheritance. They did not because dad believed it was our responsibility to take care of our children.

Dad had given this a lot of thought because of his experience with his own family. He was the oldest and was responsible for executing his parent's will. The added twist to my grandfather's will was that he had remarried late in life after my grandmother's death and he left the use of his home to his second wife. She could legally remain in the property until she chose to vacate or her death. Pretty standard stuff and my father and his siblings had no problem with this arrangement. They liked her and did not want to cause her any discomfort. They were surprised and more than a little annoyed that when she chose to vacate the property she took my grandmother's furniture. My father was the first to admit that the furniture was not wanted by any of the sibling but it felt like a stranger had come in and taken family property that did not belong to her. As my father stated, their response was solely emotional, without logic. But it reinforced that Blanche had unknowingly taken a place in the family that was not her to take. 

I have listened as many of my friends have shared their sadness and anger over the decisions their parents made about property distribution after their death. One friend listened as her parents explained that all their money was going to her brother and his grown children because she owns her home and has a good income and they do not. Her parents made her executor of their will so she will spend her time making sure that their last wishes will be carried out; wishes that exclude her. Another acquaintance's father started selling off valuable items even after he told his father how much he treasured the family grandfather clock. His father's response was clear, it belongs to me and I can do with it what I wish. Still another friend's parents shared with the family that they were leaving the bulk of their estate to the two younger boys because they were not as competent as the older two siblings. Even though all the money and property was gone by the time the will was executed, the intent of their parents remain a bone of contention between the siblings today.  

I recognize and honor the reality that each of us has the freedom and right to give our estate to whomever we wish at our death. But to avoid pain and contention between family members after your death, I encourage the following:

1. Don't punish competence. Doing so has multiple repercussions. It can cause dissension in the family as well as negatively label family members. The younger brothers I mentioned earlier, each reacted differently to their parents reasoning that they weren't as competent as their older siblings. The youngest laughed it off and built a million dollar business, the other brother who is also financially secure only has bitter words for his parents as he mentally defends his life choices against their vision of him. As for the older two, they have trapped both their brothers in a mental paradigm of incompetence that their parents created. 

2. Don't try to manage from the grave. Unless your wealth is along the lines of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and you are trying to avoid your major heir being the state and federal government, give freely and without strings. I would even suggest give before your death particularly those items boxed up in the attic and closets. I am now lovingly using dishes and other household items that mom had packed away years old and forgotten. I would love to tell her how much pleasure her things are adding to my life and how they make me think of her.

3. Do take time to think about what your gift is saying to others. This goes along with the concept of unintended consequences.  As my father said, this is about each individual's place in the family. If you choose to single out one person over the other, remember others may assign their own reasoning for your actions. This could cause dissension in the family that you did not intend to create. Think about what you are trying to accomplish.

4. Do talk to your heirs. Once you are clear on your goals, share what you are thinking with others. The idea that the reading of the will is a Perry Mason moment where competing family members sit around in a conference room glaring at one another is a TV writer's fantasy. Keep in mind that your children may resist a serious conversation. My father tried to talk to me after his first heart attack and I couldn't bear to think about him dying. Candidly, it has all worked out fine but I wish I had given him the opportunity to share with me his thoughts. 

This is about taking time to think about your goals, putting in place your plans and sharing your vision with your heirs. I would love to hear your ideas on inheritance and what to do and what not to do. Let me know what you think.