Close this search box.

Inheritance Advice: The ‘Times’ Got It Wrong

Print Article
Inheritance advice

The New York Times is wrong. In a recent “Social Q’s” column, a reader asked for inheritance advice. The response was off the mark.

(For the purposes of this article, we’ll call the questioner “Reader.” And though the column didn’t reveal Reader’s gender, for easy identification, we’ll assume Reader is female.)

Reader describes the circumstances: She and her sibling, a brother, are around 50 years old. Reader is single, and has no children. Her brother is married with three kids nearing college age. Parents are in their 70s. The parents announced, over dinner, that they are not dividing their estate 50-50 between the kids. Instead, they plan to give each child and grandchild a fifth. Reader reports that she didn’t say anything at the time. But upon reflection, the arrangement “seems really unfair.” Adding to the drama: Reader is geographically nearer and is called on to help when parents need it. Reader’s question: “Should I say something?”

The NYT’s response? Yes! “There’s nothing wrong with asking, ‘Can we talk about your will? I want to understand your thinking.’ ”

Inheritance Advice Is Risky

Our take on this inheritance advice? It’s short-sighted and risky.

For starters, Reader is NOT entitled to ANY part of her parents’ estate. In nearly all of the United States, after a child has reached adulthood, parents have no legal obligation to provide anything to their children. At all. The estate is theirs to divide up as they please. Questioning their reasoning appears greedy. Plus, it is inconsiderate and rude. Parents could easily take offense, and answer, correctly: “None of your business.”

Additionally, their pattern of gifting is not unusual. There are many reasonable explanations that can be deduced without asking directly. For instance:

  • Benefit the grandchildren. Perhaps both siblings have done well, and parents worry that their grandchildren will not enjoy the same opportunities. The grandchildren receiving money directly might provide for an emergency or more education or the ability to invest, travel, or afford children.
  • Aid promising futures. Maybe Parents are less than impressed with how Reader and her brother turned out. Maybe they find the grandchildren’s potential impressive and want to support it.
  • Look long-term. The popular way to divide an estate – equal shares to each child – means grandchildren may never see any share of their grandparents’ estates. With life expectancy inching toward 80 (and over 80 for people who have already made it into their sixties), children are often retirement age before they inherit from their own parents. By the time they die, grandparents’ contributions may be long forgotten. Maybe parents want their legacy to extend to another generation.

And more

  • Support family values. Perhaps parents would like their hard-earned estate to stay in the family. From her tone, single Reader sounds not very inclined to leave her estate to her brother and his kids. Or maybe they want to ensure brother’s spouse gets as little as possible, and Reader’s share ended up reduced as a consequence; conversely, perhaps they wanted to assure that their daughter-in-law saw at least some indirect benefit from their estates.
  • Assuage other concerns. Parents may worry that brother is not likely to leave his estate to his kids. Or that Social Security will be bankrupt, and grandchildren will need retirement funds. Or that grandchildren will be harmed by inflation, lack of job security, limited health care, climate change, immigration, etc. Grandchildren, with so much uncertainty ahead, will benefit from an inheritance more.

Asking Could Make It Worse

For Reader, will prying into the reasons make it less painful? We suspect that the explanation will only make the situation worse. After all, the reasons might be irrational: Maybe it’s because Reader is single. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t return calls as quickly as parents want.  Maybe Reader doesn’t like mom’s tuna casserole. It doesn’t matter. Parents get to decide. It’s not always better to know.

Reader is blessed to have parents who share their plan. The dinner was not an invitation to negotiate, but a message to make peace with their plan now—(hopefully) long before implementation. Such surprises after death can create hard feelings for the rest of someone’s life. The advance warning is a gift. Reader needs to deal with the disappointment. She should call her therapist, a close friend, or even her brother. (He’s getting shorted, too).

Way Worse

“Can we talk about your will?” is a loaded question. Loaded with danger. Reader risks appearing greedy, disrespectful, and rude. (Because, let’s face it, she is.) Perhaps Reader’s parents have an abundance of compassion and will kindly answer. But they just as easily could re-do the plan to write out Reader entirely. In short, Reader could end up with ZERO. She risks not just her one-fifth, she also could damage the relationship with her parents.

The best case scenario could be worse. The negotiation could result in Parents changing their plan to divide the estate 50-50, as Reader “expected them to.” Why is that worse? Because, down the road, Reader could find herself facing an accusation of unduly influencing her parents to change their plan for her benefit. That could be an ugly, expensive lawsuit. Perhaps more likely: She will have ruined her relationship with her nieces and nephews forever. (How would you feel about your aunt if she took away your safety net?)

More Reasons Not To Ask

We have a few more issues with Reader’s request for inheritance advice.

She’s borrowing trouble. First, she assumes there will be an estate left. Her parents are young! In their 70s. They have a lot of living (and spending) to do. There may be very little left in 10, 20, or 30 years, when the survivor of them dies. Causing drama over this now may be all for naught.

Furthermore, her parents may change their minds on their own. And, depending on their estate plan, the survivor of them can change the whole thing—probably as many times as he or she wants. The best way to ensure Reader receives one-fifth, and maybe a bigger inheritance, may be to lean in–help MORE, be MORE present, and love them MORE. Which, many family members say, has its own rewards.

Reader should practice saying (until she believes it): Mom and dad, I appreciate that you shared your estate plan with me. I accept and respect your decision. I understand that it’s entirely your call, and if you ever change it, please don’t feel like you have to include me. My feelings toward you have nothing to do with how much you leave to me. I love you regardless.

And if that’s not true, Reader should reassess the relationships.

That’s our inheritance advice.

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our Newsletter to get our takes on some of the situations families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities find themselves in. These posts help guide you in the decision making process and point out helpful tips and nuances to take advantage of. Enter your email below to have our entries sent directly to your inbox!

Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.