Many readers shared comments about my column “How Best to Handle Real Estate Inheritance.” Although most readers support the idea of dividing assets equally among siblings, I did receive some comments that address the issue of leaving siblings unequal amounts. So, in this column, I have decided to focus on the topic of unequal sibling inheritances.
For example, one reader wrote: “Forgive me if I sound bitter about my parents leaving my sister more than they left me because ‘she had special challenges’ and I was ‘doing fine’. Growing up I worked hard to follow all the rules for being a responsible person, and now I am happily married with wonderful kids.
“While growing up, my sister consistently made stupid decisions that cost untold amounts of our parents’ money, including several stays in rehabilitation centers for drugs and alcohol abuse, years of on-and-off therapy, flunking out of three colleges, and tuition for several training programs, such as being a yoga teacher and a masseuse, neither of which “worked out.’ My sister is a loser and hangs around with losers. Right now she is quickly going through her inheritance (which she got in a lump sum) on all kinds of spending binges. Yes, I am bitter.”
I had to take a deep breath after reading this comment. The parent in me completely understands why those parents left more to their troubled daughter: parents want to remain optimistic and hopeful that given enough time and opportunity, things will turn for the better for their kids who are not doing well. Granted, money can be a provider of opportunity, but it can also be a detrimental enabler, depending on how its dispersal is set up. (That is, someone who is financially irresponsible needs to be on a budget with funds tightly managed by someone who is financially responsible.)
Although the sibling in me can understand why the writer resents the financial favoritism the parents showed toward her sister under this particular set of circumstances, I am hoping she can focus on her statement where she says she is “happily married with wonderful kids.” Making this a mantra may help relieve some of her bitterness. Although she has no control over her sister’s behavior, she does have control over what thoughts she chooses to dwell on and the impact her thoughts have on her emotional well being.
Another reader explains why she deliberately set up her will to leave her two kids unequal amounts: “I am a single mom. When my two kids were growing up I told them that I would pay for their undergraduate degrees, but that was all. My older daughter decided she wanted to go on to medical school, and when we went over the loans she would have to take out, I decided I would pay for her medical school, but that I would deduct that amount from her inheritance. Both she and my other daughter understand why I did this and are fine with it.”
Two additional comments I am including come from a New York Times article, “Mom Left Me the House. What Do I Owe My Brothers?” In response to this article a reader writes, “For those of you thinking about writing a will that does anything other than split the assets evenly among the offspring, consider including in the will itself a firm statement of intent and explanation. E.g., ‘Because of her many years of caring for me lovingly and selflessly and without thought or mention of repayment, and because I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that her brothers have ample financial means of their own already, I bequeath the house to my daughter.’ ”
In this same article a reader shares an uplifting comment about an action taken to correct a perceived injustice: “Years ago my then-boyfriend’s grandfather died and left everything to my boyfriend’s father and nothing to his other son. My boyfriend’s father, that very day, called his brother and said ‘It’s mine now, and my decision is to divide it equally between us . . . ’ ”
In all of these cases in which inherited amounts among siblings are not equal, it is clear that communication on why certain decisions have been made may help affected parties have a better understanding of inheritance decisions. The beneficiaries may not like the decisions, but the fact is that inheritances are comprised of someone else’s money, and the benefactor gets to decide who gets what.
Then there was the angry grandfather who wrote me about his grandson not repaying a loan the grandfather had made to him. The grandfather leveraged the grandson’s inheritance: that is, if the grandson was not going to do the right thing while the grandfather was alive, then the grandfather would do it for him when he died by deducting what was owed him from the grandson’s inheritance and sharing it with the other grandchildren. This arrangement gave the grandfather the peace of mind he was seeking.
To close on a different note, one can always follow the advice of The New York Times financial columnist Ron Lieber, who advises, “Parents, the Children Will Be Fine. Spend Their Inheritance Now.” I found this article to be well researched and thought provoking.
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