Disputes over inheritance can wreck family relationships. Dr. Dale Atkins
(psychologist, author, TV commentator, Reform congregant) and Rabbi Edythe
Mencher (clinical social work psychotherapist, author, organizational
consultant) speak with the RJ editors on how to preserve sh’lom bayit
(family harmony) before and after the reading of the will.
Aron:Among the many things that most of us are not
prepared for is how to divide up an inheritance amicably. Too often unexpected
conflicts arise that ruin sibling relationships.
Joy:I know a woman, let’s call her Alice, who left
school after sixth grade and started working in New York’s Garment District to
support her impoverished family. Her sister got married young and left home, but
Alice remained with her widowed mother and gave her practically all of her
earnings until Alice finally married at age 39. When her mother died, Alice
learned that the entire estate had been bequeathed to her sister. She was
furious, since almost all of the estate funds had accrued from her years of
working—money she could have used to further her own education and enjoy her
life. She contested the will in court, but lost the case. The sisters never
spoke to one another again.
Dale: This is very sad, yet not such an unusual story. Most
family feuds began with an inheritance dispute. In some families, generations of
descendants have never met and have no idea why they don’t have relationships
with their cousins, aunts, and uncles. Money is usually at the root of the
In the story Joy told, the aggrieved daughter expected her mother’s will to
acknowledge the fact that for years she had lived her own life in support of her
mother’s. But clearly her mother saw the situation differently. She did not feel
the need to acknowledge her daughter’s “sacrifice” with financial remuneration.
The daughter probably felt betrayed, taken advantage of, disappointed, and
angry. Unfortunately, when it comes to inheritance, what we and what our parents
believe to be equitable may be very different.
Edie: It is also deeply unsettling to have one’s sense of
fairness betrayed by a parent. Understanding the parent’s motivation in making
the decision sometimes helps. It is also likely that neither of these sisters
adequately understood the other’s feelings.
Dale: Exactly. Consider the scenario of a sibling who
decides to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. The parents resolve to give
her most of the inheritance because she’s struggling financially and will need
the money more than her brother, who chose a lucrative profession. The brother
may protest: “It is not fair that you are getting the lion’s share of the estate
when Mom and Dad paid all your bills for years.” He likely feels that, in some
way, he is being “punished” for pursuing a financially remunerative and perhaps
more stressful career.
I know a man who was expected to practice law even though he wanted to do
something different with his life. Despite his financial success, he resented
his parents for forcing him into this choice while his unpressured sister
pursued her chosen field. His resentment only grew when his sister received an
outsized share of the estate, because their parents determined that “he would
always have money as an attorney.”
Edie: Such inequities run through our biblical tradition.
Repeatedly, the younger child becomes the favored one who gains special blessing
and inheritance, although the prevailing custom of the period was to bestow
privilege on the eldest child. For example, a young Jacob, just slightly younger
than his twin brother Esau, uses his cunning and his mother’s help in wresting
his father’s blessings away from Esau. Much later, on his deathbed, Jacob
gathers Joseph and his brothers close, gives his impressions of each, and leaves
a double inheritance to Joseph by counting Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manassah,
as if they were his own sons. Jacob is repeating the same kind of favoritism he
had accorded to Joseph—the very behavior which led Joseph’s brothers to become
so envious and resentful of Joseph that they sold him into slavery.
Joy: Why does a pattern of unjust favoritism appear time and again in
our biblical stories?
Edie: There are many different explanations. Biblical
scholar Tamara Eskenazi says these biblical stories are a way of “restoring hope
and providing healing to a people whose world had become undone after the
destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the exile that followed.”
Choosing the younger son to inherit power and position offered the
disenfranchised Israelites hope; if they maintained faith, God would return them
to their rightful, secure, sovereign home. Another explanation for the reversal
of traditional inheritance practices is to send the message that change is
possible. And that brings us to the third message: While we might strive for
justice, we can learn even from being treated unfairly how to manage
disappointment and hurt. By growing in empathy and self control, a legacy of
greater love and maturity may be ours no matter what we are bequeathed by
parents. On Jacob’s deathbed, the grown siblings in the Joseph story are
challenged to use the forgiveness of one another which they achieved in their
lifetime to manage this new, painful provocation differently.
That is not to say that Judaism condones the practice of purposely bestowing
an unjust inheritance. Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud (page 10b)
states: “A man should never single out one son among his others, for on account
of a sela weight of silk (the coat of many colors) that Jacob gave Joseph
in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him, and the matter
resulted in our forefather’s exile in Egypt.”
Joy: Are wills sometimes reflections of parental judgment of their
Dale: Very often wills are used as a measure of performance.
The parent is sending a message, sometimes from the grave: “You did this,” or
“You didn’t do that,” or “Everything was fine until you married that girl.”
Sometimes—because neither the parents nor children ever wanted to broach
uncomfortable subjects—it’s only when the will is read that a son or daughter
discovers that one or both parents harbored such unspoken resentments.
Also, many adult children interpret the will as a kind of final report card.
You know, “How did I do, in my mother’s or father’s eyes? Did I make the
grade—A, B, C, D, or F?”
Sometimes having such expectation leads to a positive outcome. A woman I know
knew that one of her daughters coveted her grandmother’s diamond necklace, but
this mother would never let her wear it because “she loses everything.” The
matter was never discussed, but after the mother died her will specified that
the necklace go to that daughter, who interpreted this decision as her mother’s
way of finally validating her as a responsible adult.
But much of the time, the “report card” perspective is fraught with problems.
If one sibling is chosen as executor, the others may construe this as a
statement about who their parents perceived as the most competent and a judgment
about their not having measured up. The situation becomes more complicated when
the executor is younger than other siblings or when the chosen one lords his/her
power as executor over brothers and sisters.
Edie: Very often, before the will is read, a deeply
alienated child who felt mistreated and may have even stopped seeing his parents
may still cling to the hope that he will be rewarded with a significant
inheritance as reparations for his suffering and as acknowledgment that he had
been loved after all. If, it turns out, he’s bequeathed less than his siblings,
he may feel betrayed by both parents and the siblings who allegedly failed to
act as advocates on his behalf—an expectation that mystifies his siblings.
Aron:To avoid fairness and validation problems,
should a will simply stipulate: “Whatever I have will be divided
Dale: That still doesn’t guarantee that the children will
perceive the will as fair. If one sibling, usually a daughter, has been taking
care of an infirm parent for years, she may expect a monetary reward, and feel
hurt if the parent fails to account for her extra effort. Yet if the parent does
reward the dutiful daughter with a disproportionate share, her siblings may
protest: “It was her choice to take care of Mom, and doesn’t make up for a
lifetime of being part of a family in which everything was always equal.”
Edie: Paradoxically, the sibling who remains close to the
parent often does not feel she is the favored child. A parent may take for
granted the devoted daughter who visits her in the nursing home every day. Then,
on that rare occasion when her brother walks in, the overjoyed mom announces,
“Oh, my son is here, he visits!” The daughter may hope that such imbalance will
be corrected in her inheritance, although typical patterns of family interaction
tend to persist, even at the end of life.
Dale: If the parent expressed heartfelt appreciation for the
devoted daughter in life—“Thank you, I’m so grateful you are here, having you
wash my hair makes me feel so good….”—the objects of inheritance would mean much
less to her. She might still want the money or the diamond ring, but the
possessions wouldn’t be invested with so much emotion. The caregiver might
think, “It really mattered to Mom that I was there for her every day, though my
brother was always her favorite. He and I can work it out.”
With a lot of effort, adult siblings can forge a new relationship
after their parents are gone. They don’t have to perpetuate what was done to
them by their parents.
Aron: If adult siblings have been very close before their parent
dies, are they immune from inheritance wars?
Dale: They’re not immune, because, in the end, a simple
request can spark a conflict. For example, a mother I knew asked her two
daughters, who were quite close, to sit with her in the hospital and discuss who
was going to get every piece of valuable jewelry she had, item by item. At one
point the mother said to one daughter, “You always liked that pin.” The daughter
replied, “Yes, I did,” and the other daughter quickly chimed in, “You know,
my daughter loves that pin.” To avoid a fight, the first daughter asked
her sister, “How would you feel if I kept it and then passed it on to your
daughter?” That solution short-circuited what might have become a sore point
between the two sisters. Had the first sister said, “But I like that pin and I
want my daughter-in-law to have it,” it might have initiated an emotional
tug of war. It doesn’t take much for things to go wrong.
Edie: That reminds me of the story about King Solomon being
asked to judge a dispute between two women who claimed to be the mother of the
same baby. The wise king ruled that the baby should be cut in half. When the
real mother cried out, “Let her have the baby,” King Solomon knew that she was
telling the truth.
We ought not to confuse love with possessing. Relinquishing something we
desire may be the best way to express true love of a parent. Yes, we may feel
for the moment that we need to have a particular object because it is valuable
or a symbolic reminder of our relationship with that parent, but there is no
greater tribute to one’s love of a mother or father than demonstrating
generosity and maintaining harmonious ties with siblings after the parents’
Joy: What can parents do to try to prevent inheritance issues from
Dale: They can write an ethical will, a final personal
message or document that spells out a person’s thoughts, memories, values,
advice, life lessons, and perhaps hopes for the future. Another approach is
writing a letter to each child, concentrating on what you admire about him/her,
the accomplishments you’re proud of. Recall a story that makes you feel warm and
connected to your child. Children of any age need to be reminded that their
parents notice them in loving ways. Even if you’ve been habitually critical or
judgmental, use this opportunity to express unconditional approval. Make this
letter an act of love.
Edie: Writing such a letter during one’s lifetime endows it
with additional potency. In essence, that’s what both the biblical Jacob and
Moses did before their deaths: They spoke eloquently to those gathered around
them—Jacob to his sons, Moses before the whole Israelite community. Doing this
not only allows for repair and reconciliation, but creates new memories that can
sustain a mourner during the time of grief and beyond.
Dale: The same principle applies when it comes to
bequeathing objects such as money, furniture, and jewelry. It’s much better to
share your distribution plan openly and directly with your children. You might
say, “Please understand that we really tried to be thoughtful in writing the
will,” and then give them insight into your thought process. Also, be sure to
ask each of your children, “I’d like to know what objects you would like, and
when.” Don’t assume you know what your sons and daughters desire; very often
you’ll be surprised.
One woman I know had all of her children come to her apartment and pull a
number out of a hat to determine the order in which they could choose what they
wanted. If you got number one and your first choice was the big green vase, you
got the vase. You could also trade it later. Someone else I know had everyone
prioritize what they wished for in a private note. The objects were then laid
out, and each person talked about why this or that meant so much.
Joy: When talking about dividing up objects among siblings, is it
advantageous for all the family members to be present?
Dale: Yes, but you can’t always do it. If the adult children
aren’t talking, it’s going to be hard. In any case, it’s a good idea to ask
loved ones to give you a better sense of what they want and why. There’s no
guarantee, though, that in doing so you’ll avert potential problems. I once went
to a funeral where one of the adult siblings was late. He called to say he had
car trouble. Do you know where he really was?
Edie: He was getting the will?
Dale: No. He was getting loot from the house.
Edie: So much of this sort of behavior can be traced to
anxiety over whether we are getting—or will end up with—our fair share of love,
power, or possessions. Much as parents can make a difference, anyone who has
ever had two children knows that lavishing the older sibling with praise and
presents will not prevent him from grabbing everything out of his little
brother’s hands; nor will any amount of admonition or providing similar presents
stop the younger sibling from thinking his older brother’s toys are better.
Still, while such rivalries may be natural, they do not necessarily lead to
irreversible relationships. In the Torah, Jacob and Esau spend many years living
apart, fearing that one will kill the other because of the trickery Jacob used
to win their father’s blessing. When they finally come together again, Jacob
brings gifts of appeasement. Esau protests: “I have enough, my brother. Keep
your gifts for yourself.” But Jacob urges him to accept the presents, adding
“Looking upon your face is like seeing a face of God.”
What’s the wisdom in this? It’s our hope that, by the time we die, our
children won’t need what we are materially bequeathing. Ideally, they will feel
that nothing their parents have to give or withhold is going to complete them.
Joy:What advice can you offer adults who are
experiencing inheritance-related feelings of anger, bitterness, injustice, and
sadness towards parents or siblings and who want to move on but feel stuck?
Dale: This is a process that requires time, exploration, and
renewal. Write your thoughts—unedited—in a journal or private computer file,
taking the time needed to express the emotions and memories that come to mind.
Do healthy things, such as deep breathing, visualization, meditation, and body
work. Spend time in nature to get perspective on where you fit into the larger
world. Read inspirational texts. Listen to music. Express yourself creatively.
Pray and connect spiritually. These activities can help you to feel stronger and
realize that there’s more to your life than the “assessment” pronounced in the
will. And perhaps sometime later, you may feel ready to initiate a constructive
and empathetic discussion with your siblings about some of the issues the
Edie: Don’t try to escape your painful feelings by avoiding
siblings or attempting to erase all thoughts of errant parents—in practicing
“avoidance” you’ll just stay mired in resentment and anger.
And, however hard it seems, work to control your impulse to lash out at those
you resent. This is the lesson of the Cain and Abel story. When God favored
Abel’s sacrifices over Cain’s, God said to Cain: “Why are you so distressed, and
why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do
not do right, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is towards you; you can be its
master” (Genesis 4:6-7). Yet, soon after, in a jealous rage, Cain kills his
brother, for which God makes Cain a “ceaseless wanderer on earth.” Sibling
rivalry is natural, but it doesn’t have to lead to disastrous consequences.
Aron:What is the best outcome one can hope
Dale: The ideal is when parents truly believe they have
given their children the best of themselves, and their children truly believe
they’ve inherited the best of their parents. There are aspects of my mother and
father that both my sister and I have inherited/internalized that we are both
proud of in ourselves and in each other.
If you believe you’ve had the opportunity to take the best of your parents
and make that who you are, then you’ve truly honored your parents’ legacy. Even
if your parents were people who thrived on divisiveness and conflict, your
approaching life differently—not behaving as your parents did—can be a positive
way of addressing their legacy. You select what works best for you in
your life. As an adult you have that choice.
Edie: A woman I knew in her early 40s had cancer that no
longer was responding to treatment. Her nine-year-old daughter was watching a
television show in which the mother character had died. In a scene occurring
months after the death, the children were laughing and having fun with their
father. After the show ended, the mother put her arm around her daughter and
said, “You know, Amanda, kids can be happy again even after their parent dies,
and that’s what I want most for you.” Some months later, when it was clear to
all that her death was imminent, she managed to join the family at the dinner
table. One of the children started to cry. “Yes, it is very sad to know we will
not be together like this again,” the mother acknowledged. “But for right now,
let’s all go up to my bedroom, because it will be more comfortable for me there.
Let’s eat dinner backwards, starting with dessert. And though this is not the
way we wish things were, let’s keep making special memories during the time
we’re all still together.” While facing her own death, she had the presence of
mind to say: I don’t want you to feel bound to me in guilt and endless
sorrow; I want to free you to joy. And I want your last memories of me to be
about life. Turn it upside down, and taste the sweetness first, even though
bitterness might follow. She couldn’t have left her family a more precious