The color of money

Michelle Singletary: Dividing up money brings a family division

 

Washington Post Service

As much as we like to think our relationships can’t be defined by money, it happens.

Lately, I’ve been asking people to send me questions on how to deal with financial issues brewing in their families. Mix finances and family, and the results often leave somebody angry or hurt, which is what happened in the following situation:

The background: A reader wrote about his feelings concerning his parents’ will.

“Around 2004, my elderly parents started getting me actively involved in their estate planning by asking me to become their executor, showing me where all their pertinent financial information is kept, etc. At that time, they also gave me a copy of their will, which listed my only sister and me as their heirs, with a 50-50 split after some of their favorite charities were accounted for.”

The estate is worth about $3 million.

The conflict: Everything was fine, the reader noted, until last year. “My dad gave me an updated will, which included my sister’s two children — now in their teens — who together are being given a third to split between them, with my sister and me getting the remainder to split equally between us. So, my half has now suddenly become a third.”

The dilemma: “I am a gay man in my mid-40s with a partner of nine years. We have no intention of becoming parents and are financially secure. While I love my parents, my sister and my nieces dearly and there is no unusual friction between any of us, I do feel like I’m being dealt some kind of a penalty by my parents. Do you have any thoughts on addressing issues like this?”

The son told me the will was rewritten within a year after he’d had a “coming out” discussion with his parents. “Before that, it was 50-50. That has been the tradition with both sides of my parents’ families … going back at least two generations. If the grandkids got anything, it was always up to the discretion of the parents.”

The feelings: I asked if the son had spoken to his parents about the change. He had, and the parents said they wanted to leave money to the grandchildren for their education.

“My gut feeling is that it’s primarily a penalty for being gay and, secondarily, because my chosen career pays more than [my sister’s], even though she and her husband are perfectly comfortable, recently built a new home, etc. I have talked with my partner and he’s of the mind that I should bring it up again because it’s making me feel a little resentful.”

But what would he say to his parents if he approached them again about the distribution of their assets?

“I would ask them or maybe even recommend that if paying for the girls’ education is their real goal, why not consider setting up a trust or something to handle those costs? From my point of view, the financial difference is pretty substantial, and there seems to be other risks (e.g., they choose not to go to school, get married and then divorced right away, etc.). In the meantime, I sit here stewing and resentful but also reluctant to address it for fear of alienating them.”

The bottom line: He’s hurt. I get that. The ugly truth is money can’t buy love. But it can be used to try to hurt the people you say you love.

There are plenty of wills and trusts drawn up in which people communicate their dissatisfaction with their heirs by leaving them nothing or less than what the heirs believe is fair. People create wills that do show their dislike for an adult child’s choice of mate — straight or gay. Or they leave an unequal share of their money favoring one child over another because they felt that they weren’t appreciated enough or taken care of in their old age the way they wanted.

This is their prerogative. It’s their money.

It was not out of line for the son to question the change in the will. He got an answer, and I thought it was a fair one. He should get over his resentment and not bring it up again.

By the way, the son is making a lot of assumptions that aren’t fair. For example, it’s hypocritical to suggest the grandchildren don’t deserve an outright distribution because they might choose not to attend college or they might get divorced.

Maybe his parents want to break from family tradition. Perhaps they want to ensure that what their grandchildren inherit isn’t left up to the children’s parents. Besides, if, as the son believes, the parents are equating their approval or lack thereof by how much they leave their adult children, he’s still getting the same as his sister and more money than either of the grandchildren because they are splitting a third.

If this isn’t truly about the money, he should take them at their word that they want to share their wealth among all their immediate living heirs.

Hear Michelle Singletary’s personal finance reports on www.npr.org. Write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20081.

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