In polite society of yesteryear it was taboo to talk about sex or money. Even today, parents can have difficulty talking to their young children about sex.
Parents also have problems talking about money. They wonder what and when to tell young children about the family’s economic status. No parent wants an affluent child bragging about how much Daddy earns or a child in a struggling family worrying about Mommy losing her job.
In Boston where it was considered vulgar to talk about money, my parents never did — except to clearly say “We can’t afford it” when I asked for something beyond their means. However money for education was somehow always there. My years in medical school and my sister’s year in college coincided. My parents joked with their friends that they had to save and return ginger ale bottles until they had enough nickels to go to the movies.
In a recent email a mother asked me how to divide assets in her will because one child’s economic status was so much better than that of the siblings. Wills, like divorces, are a legal matter and I advised the mother to talk with a lawyer specializing in estate planning.
However I do know lots about siblings and can tell you that twinges of sibling rivalry persist long into adulthood especially when money, property, or family heirlooms are involved. When wills are read, or when there is no will, sibling squabbles are almost inevitable. Even when the dollar amount is equally divided, if the Tiffany lamp that has been in the family for generations goes to the child who squeaked the loudest, things can get pretty ugly. And stay ugly.
I have some advice for parents based on personal experience and conversations with friends about this issue. The first is to plan your own retirement thoughtfully. The best gift parents can give their adult children is not becoming a financial burden to them. Second, making a will is not a do-it-yourself project so get competent legal and financial advice.
Parents need to learn, as I did, the difference between “equal” and “equitable.” Equal is defined mathematically; the dollar amount left to each child is the same. Signing a will that does that is the easiest way to go. However this is appropriate only if your children are all adults living independently on their own dime, are responsible about spending money, and have no physical or mental problems. Wills must be reviewed periodically or when situations change.
Providing an equitable inheritance means each child gets what is fair after taking into account the needs of each child. A child with a disability may need life long support. One who is financially irresponsible or has an addiction may not be trusted to manage money. Lawyers will tell you a trust is the best way to deal with these problems. Also when the parents gave a sizeable chunk of money to one child to start a business or buy a home, parents wonder if they should subtract that amount before dividing the estate.
The most difficult issue to deal with, however, is what today’s question raises, a glaring inequality between the children’s incomes. One child decided on the arts instead of a profession or business and makes half of what the siblings earn. Another may have a disabled child who needs special costly care.
Or perhaps one child cannot get a job in his or her field because it is no longer needed. It is forecast that retail jobs may soon be nonexistent. Already since 2001, 18 times more department store workers than coal miners have lost their jobs.
My advice to parents (writing as a pediatrician and a mother who has dealt with several of these issues) is to gather all the children together to talk about what you intend to do and why. Also ask who wants what from the household effects. I have many of my mother’s paintings (she was a distinguished botanical artist) and I have been asking my children to tell me which paintings they want. I recently took photos of my house and labeled them with information about every painting and family heirloom. I mailed these to all and again asked what each wanted. Only one conflict: my son had asked for the painting of a scarlet maple leaf years ago and my grandson just asked if he could have it. I’m still around so I could decide, guided by both seniority and the date of request. The painting will go to my son and my grandson picked out another picture.
My children, like many others, have different incomes. My late husband and I realized that we could not foresee the future — an affluent child could be broke one day and another’s status could improve. So we divided assets equally.
On the occasion of my husband’s 80th birthday the family gathered at a beach resort. At the birthday party, unbeknownst to me, he handed each child an envelope with a generous check saying he had been given a lifetime of presents and it was time to reverse the process. Confusion followed as the kids realized they had each received another’s check. My husband rose to affirm he was not senile, he did this deliberately so they would remember handing money to a sibling and would always help each other out if necessary when he was gone. Nice!