Splitting the pie fairly
If you have more than one child, deciding how to distribute your assets among them may prompt some angst: If and how should your will or trust reflect your understanding of their different needs? According to a Merrill Lynch study, two-thirds of parents over age 55 are open to the idea of unequal bequests.
"Fair" does not necessarily mean "equal." If one child has invested considerable time caring for you during health challenges—perhaps giving up valuable income-earning years—should that be reflected in their inheritance? Again, two-thirds of parents think it should. (Not all children agree.) If one child is in a lucrative profession and the others are not so well paid, should you bequeath equally or according to need? Should a health-challenged child get more? What if some of your kids have children and others do not? Should the nonparents get less?
Money does not equal love. This is a self-evident truth. But as a culture, we tend to view money as a proxy for affection. Differing amounts can bring up old resentments. "Dad loved you best …" These feelings may even play out in a court battle. (Sigh)
There are myriad ways to divide the pie. Here are three common scenarios:
Equal parts in the will, but gifts as needed before you go. What you give to your children in the normal course of life need not be up for family discussion. It's between you and each individual child.
Acknowledge prior financial help given as a "draw down" on the inheritance. Some children may have needed more help (a down payment for a house, rehab for substance abuse, assistance due to the pandemic). Deducting your past financial support from that child's "fair share" may quell resentment from other siblings.
Unequal bequests with a description of your reasoning. Leave a note with your will or trust that affirms your equal love and explains your logic.
Talk with your kids ahead of time. It's advisable to discuss your plans with your children individually. (You could learn that the prosperous child prefers that more be given to a less financially stable sibling because it reduces the chance of their being tapped for aid later.) You might then review your plans with everyone in a family meeting. If these conversations seem daunting, let's talk. We can serve as an objective sounding board to help clarify your thoughts, prepare for the discussions, and perhaps even facilitate your family conversation.
Work with an estate planning attorney. There may be options you hadn't thought of and details you need to include. You will need an attorney to draw up the final documents.
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