The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
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:
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.
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?