In our book Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Parents As Your Parents Age we urge readers to have a will. This is nothing new. Everyone above the age of thirty knows they need one.
Nevertheless, many people, from show-biz stars like Prince and Aretha Franklin, to legal giants like a Supreme Court Justice whose name I can’t reveal, have died intestate.
Might this be you? Of course, you, like they, know better. Then why haven’t you made a will?
The most obvious reason is we don’t like to think of our own death. We embrace denial and avoidance, even those of us with a deep faith in life beyond the grave. So fear of the unknown is one reason. Here’s another biggie:
You’re not sure how to distribute your stuff among your children. The most obvious way is to divide it equally. But…
1. In your lifetime, you have financially helped the one who most needed it most. One child is an artist with amazing talent. You have subsidized his rent on a New York City studio apartment which he could never afford on his own. Your other child is a physician with a good income now and the opportunity of more to come. If you give by need, rather than equally, how will the physician feel? Will he blame his brother?
2. One child has been your care-giver, sacrificing her own career and social life to care for you. You’d like to reward her as a kind of delayed payment, by leaving her your home. But you fear blow-back from the other children.
3. You have a child who has always made you proud and one who has constantly been in trouble. You don’t trust the second child to use your money in a positive way. You love him and want him to grow up, but you’re afraid an influx of free money will actually harm him. He may see this as punishment.
The answer for all of these situations is a conversation with the child who’d get less, before you write (or update) your will—and certainly before you say anything to the one who will take more.
Explain that you love him every bit as much as the other child. Also explain your thinking. Ask him, “What do you think? Do you understand my concern? Does this feel fair to you?” Make clear that you are the one thinking of this, not the “favored” sibling. Otherwise, they are likely to blame the brother or sister for turning you against them.
In many cases, the child with whom you speak will agree that your intention is fair. But if they do object, you have to think long and hard about what to do. You may decide to give equally. If you move forward as you wanted to, at least the child who gets less will not be caught by surprise and hopefully will not blame their sibling.
Our advice: Bite the bullet, have the conversation, and write the will.
Tom Getman says
Carolyn and Sig: As is the case each time you correspond it is a joy (a necessity) to say…thank you for the insights, prods and affirmations. As you know my 100 year old mother died in January. Her will was a basic simple one that actually had been actualized for the most part before her death by the natural distribution by her and then at the time of her passing through an agreement by we 5 siblings. If relationships are sound and lovingly open among children of the deceased it makes the final sharing of the residual finances easy and affirming. In our case we all are secure in our adequate if not lavish incomes and retirement accounts so since our lone sister was the child who lived closest, had the largest responsibility for care giving, checking in with the retirement home and the paying of the bills it was unanimously agreed with appreciation that she should be the recipient of the remaining possessions and money. I guess one possible hope for us even with proper will as we think about our children in likewise close loving relations is to affirm that the one who is the closest of far flung progeny and most likely to have the biggest end game responsibility should receive by agreement rather than will the residual assets.