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.
- 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).
“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.