I get a tremendous amount of feedback from readers every time I write on the topic of what’s fair in a parent’s will.
Most recently, I addressed whether a needy adult child should get more money in the will than a financially secure sibling. (Here’s the link for that column: wapo.st/2Kz2Xb4.)
Most of the reader responses I received homed in on how the perceived unfairness of a will can break up families, causing decades-long drama. In an occasional feature in my column called “Talk Back,” I allow people to respond to an issue I’ve raised. Here’s what some folks had to say on what parents owe (or don’t owe) their adult children.
“I am the oldest of five children,” wrote C. Wolfe. “I’ve been very fortunate in life. My husband made a good income. We are both frugal. My siblings were less so in their younger days — multiple divorces, failed business ventures, and yes, sometimes what I would consider unwise spending on ‘stuff.’ My parents helped them all, some multiple times. It didn’t bother me. If I had needed something, I’m sure they would have helped me, too. But one year, my dad unexpectedly came into an inheritance from a distant uncle. He decided to share it with us and gave each of us $5,000, including me. I cried. Even though I never minded my folks helping my siblings when they needed it, being included in this distribution, even though I didn’t ‘need’ it, somehow validated that I was as loved as the others. When they died, the estate was divided equally among all of us. You are right when you say parents have the right to distribute their wealth as they please. But their equal inclusion of me in these two instances meant the world to me.”
Mary Ann Sibbald from Vancouver, Washington, appreciated the recent column. “Thank you for your words on how to divide your inheritance, a problem I have been pondering for a few months,” she wrote. “You let me know I am on the right track. I am also leaving ‘an open letter to my three sons,’ laying out the thinking behind my decisions.”
But of all the responses, the following view left me flabbergasted.
“There are five kids in my family,” wrote a reader, who asked for anonymity. “We no longer talk to each other due to pre-estate and post-estate fairness issues. Kids keep score. They pay attention to who is getting more attention, love, money, food, etc. I know we should all be loving, giving and humble, but isn’t it just human nature to keep score in families?”
Before I answer this question, here is more of what this same person had to say: “My parents helped two of my siblings throughout their entire adult lives, giving them money, allowing them to live at home, employing them in the family business. In the eyes of the three other ‘more responsible’ siblings, the two were broke because of irresponsible spending, laziness, addiction and poor choices.”
Here’s where my mouth dropped open.
“In my opinion, every dollar that is loaned or given to an adult child should be accounted for and subtracted from their inheritance,” the reader wrote. “I DON’T consider money to be love. I am sure my parents loved us all equally, but by constantly giving the two irresponsible sibs money, it ENABLED them, and the lack of fairness infuriated the rest of us.”
This reader’s advice: “If parents choose to help their financially less successful children, they should consider it a loan or an advance on their inheritance. Money is not love, but unfairness builds resentment. I am, of course, excluding siblings who are physically or mentally handicapped.”
I don’t agree that parents should keep a ledger of what they give their adult children during their lifetimes. If we follow this logic, should the money spent on gifts for birthdays, holidays, picking up dinner, etc., be included in the calculation of what parents owe when they die?
From an objective view, your parents’ wills could be unfair and even mean-spirited. But it’s your choice to carry resentment about the inequity. If you can’t let it go, you pay the price of a damaged spirit. And absent dementia or illegal influence, it’s unfair to hold a grudge against a sibling for decisions your parents willingly made — right or wrong.
Yes, it’s human nature to compare. We all do it. But a mature person learns to deal with life’s unfairness. It’s your parents’ money to do with what they want. They don’t owe you a penny.
— Washington Post Writers Group