Family relationships are always complicated, but perhaps never more so than in times of crisis. The death of a surviving parent is a particularly trying time for adult children who, along with grief, mourning, and helping grandchildren respond to the loss, have to cope with parental wills and bequests. The death of the last parent is especially a time for siblings to comfort and support one another and respond to each other's needs. Yet the decidedly non-spiritual and troubling dimension of settling the estate frequently confounds healing and destroys sh'lom bayit (family harmony) by pitting sibling against sibling. The struggle over how to share the family inheritance has destroyed more than one family.
Some of the topics psychologist Dr. Dale Atkins and clinical social work psychotherapist Rabbi Edythe Mencher discuss with Reform Judaism's editors in "When Scott Got More Than Sue" (Summer 2010) include:
- What written estate provisions might help avoid rivalry and disharmony among children?
- What conversations among parents and children might help?
- How might adult siblings resolve competing claims on what parents leave behind?
- What expectations, spoken and unspoken, prompt siblings to clash over the inheritance?
- How can siblings navigate the older-child/younger-child syndrome when dividing the estate?
- What symbolism invests material goods with the power to destroy relationships?
- What knowledge and understanding might help children navigate quarrels over possessions and money?
- What wisdom and guidance does our Jewish heritage offer about addressing these questions?
- What can parents and children do together to help forestall or mitigate future sibling clashes?
- How can adult children cope with the feelings frequently generated by squabbles over inheritance? What will help them to get on with their lives?
We tend to avoid this topic; parents don't like to face their own mortality and adult or near-adult children don't like to consider what life might be like without their parents. At the same time, all of us know the time will come. It is better to plan now for a harmonious resolution of potential disputes than hope it somehow will work out for the best. If you haven't thought about it yet, isn’t it time you did?
To help define the issues and move the conversations along, consider:
1. Is there an inherently "fair" way for adults to divide the estate among children?
a. Dr. Atkins discusses a case in which the parents left the lion's share of the inheritance to the daughter, who, in their judgment, most needed the money. What might lead you to consider inequitable distributions to your children? How might you prepare them for this so as best to avoid later conflict?
b. The son in the same family, who, in the parents' judgment, did not need the money, felt that his parents essentially were punishing him, especially in light of the fact that he pursued a more lucrative career of their choosing. Is his reaction justified? Discuss.
c. Rabbi Mencher tells us that the Talmud, citing the episode of Joseph's many-colored coat, forbids singling out one child for favoritism. Under what circumstances might favoritism be justified? What about physical or mental health, education needs, or an adult child's family needs?
d. How might parents do what they think best in their estate planning and, at the same time, try to prevent or minimize sibling jealousy?
2. What should parents consider when drawing up a will?
a. Dr. Atkins observes that children often view the will as a kind of "final report card" in which the size or value of the bequest suggests that parents are granting or withholding approval. If you intend unequal distributions, what can you do that might hopefully avoid such unintended messages?
b. Siblings often differ from one another in personality, self-confidence, values, and individual achievement. If you decide to grant unequal bequests, what actions can you take to try to help each of your children amicably accept your decisions?
3. How can parents help children cope with what they perceive to be the symbolic or real importance of the items left to them?
a. Dr. Atkins suggests that one way to minimize the chances of an adult child feeling shortchanged or unappreciated after the will is for parents continually to validate each child. How can you do that with children who are still at home? What about with adult children who live close to home? And how about with adult children who live far away?
b. In the case of money, it's easy to tell who "got more" in the bequest. It's a little more difficult to assess the comparative value of tangible goods such as art, furniture, and the like. Is it a good or a bad idea to specify what these might be worth?
4. What about siblings who seem to be on good terms with one another?
a. Dr. Atkins believes that siblings who have been close are not immune to inheritance quarrels. How might parents help create harmony even if they foresee no difficulty?
b. How might children head off the possibility of difficulty even before the parents are gone?
c. Rabbi Mencher cautions against confusing love with possessing and suggests that relinquishing may be an expression of love. How would you feel about ceding to a sibling something you closely associate with one of your parents? Explain why you could or could not "let the thing go."
5. Consider your strategies.
The interviewees—and others who have thought deeply about inheritance pitfalls—offer the following suggestions to parents in the hopes of preventing inheritance quarrels.
- Write an ethical will about who you are, the important things you've learned and your hopes for the future.
- Write a letter to each child expressing your unconditional love.
- Share special memories with each child and your pride in the child's accomplishments.
- Ask your children what each would like to receive.
- Write a memo explaining what motivated your bequest decisions, especially if they are unequal in value or perceived value.
- Explain to your children why you chose the executor you did.
- Tell your children who is in your will besides themselves (e.g. stepchildren, grandchildren, close friends), why they are included and what they will receive.
- Live your life so that your children will know you are giving them your best now, and that inheritances are not your measure of their worth.
a. Discuss with your spouse, adult children, parents, congregants, and/or friends why each strategy might or might not work within your family.
b. Identify three interventions you would seriously consider using and why.
c. If you are an adult child, what can you say or do to promote sh’lom bayit (peace in the home)?
d. What else would you add to this list?