Money and emotions always seem to go hand in hand. That’s especially true when it’s time to unveil a parent’s unspoken estate plan and (horror of horrors) the distribution of assets is not what every child expected. Even worse is when the now-deceased parents have elected to divide the assets less than equally. Sure, Mom and Dad may have had good reasons for their choices, but if there are surprises in store, the result can leave children of any age feeling that “Mom loved me best” or, worse, “Dad loved me less.” What’s a parent to do?
In my years of experience working with the adult heirs of my clients, I have seen every sort of scenario. When there are testamentary surprises, emotions intensify the pain of the grieving process.
- When Elaine died in her 90s, Susan and Michael were surprised to learn that Elaine had bequeathed 75% of her estate to her daughter and 25% to her son. As her advisor, I knew why. Elaine had shared with me that because Susan had chosen to be a school teacher (a career that is more admirable than fiscally beneficial), she was concerned for her financial well-being in retirement. Her son, on the other hand, was a successful pediatrician with significant retirement savings of his own, plus a large pension. Elaine’s estate was sizable, and Michael inherited a nice sum, but I could see it on his face when we met: “Mom loved me less.”
- Eric had been estranged from his father when he died. His siblings, Dylan and Kelly, had cared for their dad for years as he battled Alzheimer’s. When the estate plan was presented to them, Eric was shocked and angry that Dad has disinherited him. Through his hurt and pain, he took revenge on his brother and sister, threatening a lawsuit to contest the Trust, alleging that his siblings had imposed undue influence over their ailing father and convinced him to alter his will. Here, too, I had insight into the truth: Dad had discussed disinheriting Eric long before his decline, but telling me was not the same as communicating with Eric. While the siblings ultimately avoided court, the hostility the dispute created among them may never heal.
- Veronica borrowed money from her mother for a down payment on a home 20 years ago, with the agreement that the loan would be an ‘advance’ on Veronica’s portion of her mom’s estate. When her mother died, Veronica was prepared to see the amount subtracted from her share of the assets. What she didn’t expect was that the amount her brother had recently borrowed for his own down payment was missing from the equation. In jest, her brother said, “I guess Mom loved me best!” For Veronica, it was no laughing matter. “Did Mom just forget to update the will? Or did she love my brother more?”
As sophisticated as we human beings may be, we can’t seem to help reading hidden messages into our parents’ estate plans. The complex feelings that come up can cause emotional pain and rifts among siblings. In the worst cases, estate plan surprises can damage families to the point where they will never be whole again. All because of money.
So… what’s a mother (or father) to do?
Communicate! As a parent, it is your job to communicate your estate planning decisions to your children. Yes, it may be difficult—especially if you choose to divide your estate unequally—but it is a job that you must do. Failing to tell every child your intentions can set the stage for hurt feelings, accusations, disputes, and even heated and expensive battles in court.
As a mother myself, I know that communicating with kids about money is much easier said than done. If you’re feeling apprehensive about the task, here’s my 3-step guide to doing it right:
- Take the time to explore your choices carefully.
Write down your reasons and question yourself relentlessly until you are 100% certain you are making the right choices for you. Once you’ve made your decisions, work with an estate attorney to ensure the language in your plan is clear and indisputable to dissuade challenges down the road. If your thinking changes at any time, work with your attorney to update your plan as soon as possible.
- Schedule a meeting to share your intentions with your heirs.
Together or separately, walk them through your decisions so they know what to expect when the time comes. Not only can this dispel any ill feelings among them later on, but it also allows you to be very clear that your decisions aren’t about loving one child more or less than another. (If you need help organizing and navigating a family meeting, we are always here to help!)
- Be open about the numbers.
Talking about money is often taboo. And it’s rarely easy. But sharing the numbers can give your children peace of mind knowing that they don’t have to worry about your own financial preparedness, and it can help them set expectations for their own financial futures.
There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Losers don’t get mad, they get revenge!” Sadly, that is often true with siblings and other heirs when there is an unspoken and uneven estate plan. Of course, it’s your money, and you have every right to distribute your estate however you see fit. It doesn’t need to be ‘right’ according to others—or even fair in their eyes. But keeping your plan a secret creates a risk that your plan won’t be carried out as you envision. By communicating clearly with every child and every heir, you can give one of the best gifts of all: a legacy of peace for the next generation.