Inheritance is Unfair: Prepare Your Emotions and Avoid Misery
You can’t change the outcome, so change your feelings
Economists estimate aging baby boomers have $30 trillion to $48 trillion in personal assets to pass down over the next 25 years. Some say it will be the greatest wealth transfer in history. It may also be the greatest disappointment.
In all likelihood, your fine parents aren’t among the 1% who hold the vast majority of that accumulated wealth. And, even if there is some money bouncing around in your family, it could easily be dissipated by your parents in their final years. Or, they may surprise you and leave you with little or nothing. Just because.
Whatever the outcome, nobody likes a whiner, and people can distribute their wealth any way they please. So follow these rules to retain your dignity and sanity.
— Genuinely expect nothing, and you won’t be unpleasantly surprised. Even if Mom and Dad have told you that you’re getting some dough and you know — or think you know — that they have lots of money stashed away, don’t count on it. Instead, imagine some disaster strikes and their wealth is depleted. Use that as your reality (though one you keep to yourself) in making your own economic decisions. Act as if you’re absolutely on your own financially. You’ll be happier.
— Once the terms of the inheritance are disclosed, do not dwell on the division of the spoils. Your sister got the lion’s share? Be happy for her — or pretend to. The Toy Train Museum received an unexpected windfall because the director flattered Dad over his basement layout and took your folks to lunch twice? Good for him. The reasons given, if any, may or may not hold water with you. Move on. Complaining makes you look small to others and, inevitably, yourself.
— Forget the past. You may have spent years watching your parents repeatedly bail out your siblings from dumb investments or compulsive spending while you were self-sufficient. Maybe you shouldered most of the responsibility of caring for your parents in their dotage. Yet they divide their estate equally among the siblings. So be it.
— Can’t get past your hurt feelings? Open your own wallet and buy yourself some therapy. Complaining to a family member runs the risk of poisoning a life-long relationship and won’t result in any reallocation of the estate. Don’t spill to your favorite aunt. Chances are she’ll repeat your complaints, and you’ll be seen as a whiner and a backbiter. A counselor, on the other hand, can listen and help you find a path toward position feelings.
— Spouses can make these situations significantly better — or considerably worse. If the death is in your spouse’s family, butt out and focus on being supportive. If he or she urges you to start or join a dispute in your family, explain that a.) that won’t change the division of spoils; b.) it may well ruin relationships; and c.) look at all we’ve saved by ourselves (and here’s hoping it’s a lot).
— Reflect on the inheritance process you experienced — for better or worse — and let it inform your own choices. My colleague Carla Fried has explained how to spare your family needless grief by preparing your records well before you depart.
— More personally, you might like to be as transparent and honest as possible in discussing your plans – and also quite clear that events might cause you to change your mind on these matters. The $1 million you told your kids they'd split could end up being consumed by first class, 'round-the-clock care for yourself or a spouse; or a late-in-life desire to travel extravagantly; or, God forbid, a gambling habit. So be honest in the extreme: We have this much, and I'm guessing some of it may remain when we're gone, and our present mindset is that you'd get X, but we're human, and all of that is subject to change, so best not to bank on anything.
— A will is not a report card. You may never understand why your father willed his meticulously restored 1956 Corvette to your sister or why your mother handed down the beach cottage to your brother, but resist the assumption that such decisions are judgments from the grave. Think of the entirety of your relationship with your parent or parents, not a final transaction that displeases you.