As you plan ahead for the end of your life, one of the decisions you’ll want to think carefully about is the eventual disposition of your estate. If you plan to leave your assets and possessions to your children – and if you have more than one heir – you’ll have a potentially tough choice to make: do you divide your estate equally, or do you give a different amount to each of your kids?
Equal or Unequal, Your Estate Plan Sends a Message
This recent article from NerdWallet helps us think through that question. “Your estate plan may be your last words to those you leave behind,” writes reporter Liz Weston. “If you’re a parent, you should think carefully about the message you’ll be sending.” The biggest problem is that, unless you make your motives crystal clear, you may be creating a deep divide between your offspring, no matter how noble your intentions.
“Parents who leave their children unequal inheritances risk fueling family feuds,” the article states. “But strictly equal bequests also can cause resentment if the heirs don’t see the distribution as fair.” As wealth planner and author Colleen Carcone told NerdWallet, “Money can cause family discord, and you want to make sure that you are thinking through this and keeping sibling relationships intact.”
“Equal Inheritance” versus “Fair Inheritance” – It Comes Down t0 Perception
Instead of focusing on “equal” or “unequal” division, the NerdWallet article recommends you concentrate on the idea of “fairness.” As Weston writes, “For some people, fair means an equal dollar amount. Others may want to adjust the distribution to deduct financial help they’ve already given, for example, or to leave more to heirs with greater need.” Sometimes an heir who has provided in-home care for a parent receives a larger share. In other families, the offspring who has worked harder in the family business may be entitled to receive more equity than his siblings.
“Each approach has its merits — and problems,” says the NerdWallet article. “With an equal-dollar distribution, heirs may resent their wealthier siblings for getting money they don’t ‘need.’ Similarly, children who received less financial help during the parent’s life may resent those who got more if the estate distribution doesn’t reflect that imbalance.” On the other hand, unequal distributions can also cause hard feelings, as well. “The person getting less than others may view it as a punishment, especially if the amount was docked to reflect past financial help or to account for personal wealth,” writes Weston. “One inheritor I know refers to this as ‘the success tax.’”
The Unique Dynamics of Your Family Should Guide Your Decision
“What matters is how your decision is likely to play out given your family’s dynamics, and that may be differently than you expect,” writes Weston. For example, one family had a son whose wealth far exceed that of his siblings, or even his parents. In spite of this, the parents had planned to divide their estate equally. But when the parents discussed this with their son, according to wealth manager Colleen Carcone, they discovered he didn’t want what they thought. “He said, ‘I would rather have the money go to my siblings, but what I’d really like is that watch collection that Grandpa left you.’”
But in other families, if it’s not an equal distribution, there will be discord. “Leaving one child more than another would ignite those ‘Mom (or Dad) always liked you best’ rivalries that can destroy sibling relationships,” says Weston. As hard as it might be to let your children know your plans ahead of time, it’s an essential step. Otherwise, one planner told NerdWallet, the parents are “just sowing seeds of discord for when they are gone.”
Equal Inheritance or Not, Parents Should Leave Behind a Detailed Letter
Whether or not you have a family meeting while you’re living – and we strongly recommend that you do – NerdWallet also urges you to leave behind “a detailed letter explaining the thinking behind your decisions. Such letters can head off disagreements about what you said and what you meant.” This will make your wishes unambiguous, and it will also help children grasp your reasoning. “Make sure that [your children] understand why you did what you did,” Colleen Carcone told NerdWallet. “Nobody wants to leave a legacy of family disharmony.”
At Life Point Law, we want to offer our services in facilitating a family conference where some of these vital issues can be aired under the guidance of an experienced attorney. These conferences can take place in person, with appropriate social distancing precautions in place, or electronically. Please contact our offices for information.