The Way of the Will

When a man I know disinherited his daughter because she married out of the faith (forty years earlier), he gave her what he thought she deserved, a slap in the face. What he could not have anticipated was the impact of this decision on his other children. Her two brothers fought: one wanted to contest the will and divide the estate evenly, and the other wanted to follow their father’s wishes (and not give up a penny of his inheritance). They never spoke again.

People have every right to leave their money however they like, and to whomever they choose. But an unequally divided estate can permanently harm relationships in the next generation.

Competition between siblings, for the parent’s love and money begins in the nursery and lasts a lifetime. One woman told me that her sister counted out the number of potato chips their mom put on their plates, to be sure their portions were equal. Another complains that she got a scholarship to college, while her parents shelled out the money for her brother’s schooling. She’s thinking about demanding reparations. Cars, privileges, tuition, and wedding size, all turn up on the list of who-got-what. I think that before some genius invented spreadsheets, kids had little cells in their brains, computing parents’ time, money, attention, and of course potato chips. I think the question behind all the comparing and calculating is, “How much do I count?”

Parents need to be aware of this when they are making their wills, especially if they want their legacy to include the continuation of the family and its values. Here are some considerations.

Choosing a favorite child to get more than the others will make the others hate the favorite, instead of resenting your decision.

Disinheriting a child will make the others feel conflicted and guilty about their right to their share. They will find ways to fight and separate.

Leaving a business to one child without making the estate even for the rest will breed dissension and envy.

One man I know, after hearing his  father’s divisive will, asked the lawyer, if he knew the damage the document would wreak on him and his brothers. The lawyer shrugged—he was following the old man’s wishes.

So if you’re thinking that you can right the wrongs done you through your will, think again. These decisions may have terrible unintended consequences.

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