Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
How do you deal with grandparents who have just informed you that they will be leaving money to one grandchild and none to the other ten grandchildren?
My parents took care of my brother’s daughter, Alyssa, from the age of ten months until she was three years old (she is now 13). When my brother got married and started raising Alyssa with his wife, my parents felt their treatment of Alyssa was never good enough.
My mother believes Alyssa is always treated like an outsider because the stepmom has three biological kids in the home, and Alyssa will always have problems because of being abandoned by her birth mother. My parents paid for private ice-skating lessons for her for years and took her to practice and competitions all over the state for years, but they never went to the other grandchildren’s events.
Since my brother met his wife, things have been a mess regarding my mother: they wanted her to just back off and act like she didn’t raise Alyssa all those years. This is very hurtful to my mother and there has been a lot of fighting between my brother, his wife, and my mother, with Alyssa in the middle. My brother and his wife do not want my mother anywhere near Alyssa because of her favoritism.
My children are grown, and they have always been aware of Alyssa being treated by my parents as the golden child. I think this is hurtful to single out one grandchild for an inheritance (and we are not talking huge amounts of money here).
Because she is not shown love and affection at home, I think my mother thinks that if Alyssa has some money as a cushion when she gets older, this will help fix things. (The fact is that Alyssa will be taken care of by her father.)
I don’t expect my kids to receive any more or any less then any other grandchild, but I think it is sad that Alyssa will inherit, but none of the other grandchildren will.
Any thoughts, other then we need counseling?
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
You raise the question, “How do you deal with grandparents who have just informed you that they will be leaving money to one grandchild and none to the other ten grandchildren?” I am afraid, alas, my answer is discouraging: There is not much you can do beyond what you have already done – that is, share with them your reasons for being disappointed with their inheritance decisions. The key here is accepting their inheritance decisions.
I will state the obvious: people can distribute their assets in any ways they choose, both while they are alive and via the provisions they make for after they die. Some decisions raise eyebrows, as when businesswoman Leona Helmsley (aka the Queen of Mean) left her dog Trouble 12 million dollars, and her grandchildren nothing. (“Trouble” was aptly named because when the courts got done with the lawsuits, the grandchildren did get something and Trouble’s take was reduced to two million.) But the point remains: Your parents can do whatever they want with their assets.
Inheritances Are a Form of Communication
When all is said and done, inheritances are a way to communicate. They are a way for the benefactor to:
- Show love and affection, e.g., leave funds to do whatever is pleasing to the beneficiary because he/she brought so much love and joy to the benefactor.
- Mete out approval, e.g., funds for the beneficiary to pursue interests, education, travel, fund-raising, et cetera, that the benefactor supports.
- Provide financial support to someone they deem to be in need, e.g., a beneficiary who has mental and/or physical limitations or requirements that affect his/her current or future earning power and/or well-being.
- Provide financial security when the beneficiary is unable to provide for himself/herself, e.g., someone with serious special needs who will always need to be taken care of.
- Compensate for what they see as the shortfalls of others, e.g., children being mistreated or abandoned.
- Show disapproval, e.g., someone being intentionally left nothing or an insulting bequeath, such as being left a chair since “you spent so much time on your lazy duff.”
- Assuage guilt, e.g., the absentee or bad parent/grandparent wanting to make amends from the grave.
One or more of these inheritance communications can come into play as benefactors think about what they “want to say” to their beneficiaries. In the case of your parents, it would appear that #3 is most important to them, with perhaps some #5 coming into play, too. There may be a whole host of reasons why your parents have decided they need to focus on Alyssa to the exclusion of the other grandchildren, but they get to decide what details, if any, they want to share with you.
Inheritances: Equity Versus Equitable
Another important consideration in making inheritance decisions has to do with equity versus equitable. If equity is the driving consideration, as was the case in a related column I wrote, then mathematical division prevails: The goal is to get as close to leaving all the beneficiaries as similar an amount as possible.
To achieve equity, divide the total value of the assets by the number of beneficiaries. Very straightforward: you have $100,000 in assets and two beneficiaries, so $100,000 divided by two equals $50,000 each.
However, inheritance decisions intended to be equitable are based on emotions and personal values. By definition, being equitable means decisions are characterized by what someone views as fair, just, and reasonable. Your parents have determined that leaving Alyssa all their assets is fair, just, and reasonable. This is their values-based perspective, and trying to convince them otherwise is probably going to be frustrating for everyone.
You will continue to feel they are being unfair. They will continue to believe that “you just don’t get it” when it comes to Alyssa. You are at an impasse, with the final decision going to your parents.
Take a Deep Breath
Sometimes your best option is to metaphorically take a deep breath and exhale all the bad feelings this situation is causing you. Accept that they have made a decision that you wish were otherwise, and inhale, again metaphorically, pure and liberating fresh air that focuses on all the good things in your life.
It may very well be that you are more bothered by your parents’ inheritance decisions than are your children and your siblings’ children. After all, you said all the grandchildren are used to the blatant favoritism shown toward Alyssa while they were growing up. I understand that your parents’ inheritance decision does not sit right with you, but it may not be an issue for the kids.
If you find you continue to harbor resentment towards your parents’ inheritance decisions – resentment that you would like to rid yourself of – then perhaps you might benefit from talking with a professional to help you get to this state of acceptance: Your parents’ inheritance decisions are theirs, and theirs alone, to make.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday. E-mail queries to [email protected]