A recent column in the Wealth Matters section of the New York Times caught our attention. The title brings to mind an issue we deal with often among our clients here at AgingOptions: “How a Will Treating Children Differently Can Still Be Fair.” If you’ve ever wrestled with the notion of dividing your estate unequally among your heirs, you can click here to see what the New York Times has to say about this potentially touchy – even explosive – issue.
The article asks, “Is there ever a time when inheritance should be uneven? And if so, can uneven still be fair? The answer to both questions is yes.” But, as the Times piece emphasizes, good, clear, timely communication is essential to avoid hurt feelings, family strain and even painful litigation.
If you stop and think about it, the article points out, when raising their children, good parents seldom treat each child precisely equally. That’s because each child’s needs and circumstances vary. Instead the effective parents tend to emphasize treating each child with fairness and equity. So when it comes time to plan your estate, it may be natural for you as a parent to want to consider each adult child individually, gauging their life circumstances and making the decision to distribute your assets unevenly. But if you decide to take this course of action, you may need to prepare for some pushback from the child who thinks he or she was treated unfairly.
The New York Times quotes an anonymous woman married to a well-to-do man in the tech industry. On the surface this woman appeared to be much better off than her siblings, so when her mother began preparing to divide her estate she planned to give this daughter a much smaller share. Unbeknownst to the mother, however, the daughter was subject to a pre-nuptial agreement barring her from controlling her husband’s assets. She was actually far more vulnerable than her mother realized. “Just because I married someone with money doesn’t mean I should get cut out,” the daughter in the New York Times article said.
In another case of an uneven bequest, a mother planned to favor her daughter, a school teacher with a modest income, over her son, a well-off doctor. But the doctor felt cheated, as though he had done all he could to please his parents only to be “disinherited.” In the end, after lengthy and productive conversation, the daughter received a larger share, but the son wasn’t left out entirely. Above all the sibling connection was maintained and not jeopardized.
There are several other instances of unequal estate distribution cited in the New York Times article involving circumstances that can get much more complicated. In some cases the unequal split is unintentional, as when one child inherits a gift with a tax liability, or when there are children from multiple marriages, or when a family business is involved. In these cases we strongly urge you to sit down with professional counsel, because these issues left unresolved can tear families apart for generations to come. Here in our office we see the tragic results of this lack of planning all too often. We will be happy to meet with you at any time.
So the bottom line is communication. Leaving your estate unequally to your children may indeed cause potential problems, but as the New York Times puts it, “All these problems can be minimized, if not fixed, with a conversation.” But the Times adds this warning: “The downsides of not getting this right are huge.”
At AgingOptions we take a comprehensive approach to retirement planning, one that we call LifePlanning. Part of the LifePlanning process involves good, honest, timely communication with your family, something with which we can definitely assist you. Having a plan in place is important, but if your loved ones have no idea what your wishes are, or why you made the choices you made, conflict and bitterness can result. Besides good family communication, your LifePlan will help you make wise housing choices, prepare all your legal documents, secure necessary health insurance and protect your assets in your retirement years. The result will be a happy, secure, rewarding retirement, and a family who will be grateful to you both now and after you’ve gone.
You can start investigating the LifePlanning approach to retirement by attending a free LifePlanning Seminar. Click on the Upcoming Events tab for dates, times and registration, or call our office for assistance. Bring your retirement questions – and see if you don’t agree that LifePlanning is the most thorough, balanced approach to retirement planning that you’ve ever seen. It will be our pleasure to help you as you journey toward the retirement you’ve always dreamed of.
(originally reported at www.nytimes.com)