Like beauty, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. It’s often defined by assumptions and ever-unreliable emotions.
One person’s fairness is another’s slight.
Let’s look at the backstory behind this question. The elderly parents have three adult children in various economic situations. One is living paycheck to paycheck. Another is doing well with good retirement savings. The third is very comfortable and even contemplating buying a vacation home. There are three grandchildren: one flailing financially, and two doing well. There are also two great-grandchildren.
The parents have been generous helping out the adult child and grandchild who have had money problems, giving them each about $25,000 over the past decade or so.
“Originally, mom and dad were going to split their estate between their three children, reducing the amount the struggling [adult] child would receive by $25,000,” the reader wrote. “But Mom wonders about leaving something to the grandchildren or putting aside some money for the great-grandchildren’s college education. We’re not talking a fortune, but enough to reduce financial woes a little. How would you split things up between three to eight people with varying histories and needs?”
In hopes of not leaving a legacy of discontent, the parents are doing the right thing by discussing their thought process, says Lynn Loughlin Skerpon, an estate-planning attorney with the Maryland-based law firm of O’Malley, Miles, Nylen & Gilmore.
Skerpon, who was the register of wills for Prince George’s County for six years, says parents often grapple with the problem of how to treat adult children equally.
Except, in death, they aim to do what they hadn’t been doing in life.
“I know many parents feel a moral obligation to treat all their children the same,” she said. “But the children have had different needs at different times in their lives. Some you’ve supported earlier in life. Or you’ve given them a down payment for a house or paid off their school loans. Others are more successful and didn’t have those needs.”
I commend the parents for considering the feelings of the more successful siblings. This is important because I often hear from people who have done all the right things — worked hard, saved, lived below their means — and they feel punished when a lesser-earning or irresponsible sibling gets a larger or even equal share of their parents’ estate.
It’s like the biblical parable of the prodigal son, Skerpon said. In the parable, the younger son is given his inheritance before his father dies, but he squanders it all. Destitute, the son returns home and his father welcomes him back, giving him fine clothes and a grand feast. This did not sit well with the elder brother, who had done all the right things. He had stayed behind and worked hard.
Like the father in the parable, talk it out with your family if you plan to distribute your estate based on need, Skerpon advises.
“I urge parents to explain that they’re not trying to be unfair, but they recognize that some of the kids are more successful than others,” she said.
In the end, it’s the parents’ perception of what’s fair that counts. If you’ve done well for yourself and saved, that’s your reward for your hard work. Don’t measure your parents’ love or your worth to them by what you get or don’t get in their will.
And don’t blame your brother.
“I try as gently as possible to tell the heirs: Don’t be upset with your brother or sister,” Skerpon said. “This is what your mom or dad wanted.”
If making sure the grandchildren and great-grandchildren have money for college, that’s fair. If the parents want to leave less to an adult child who got more while they were alive, that’s fair. It’s also fair if they want to divide up the estate equally among the three surviving adult children, no matter how much they gave to any of them during their lifetime.
Parents, think of it this way: Anything you leave should be seen as a windfall. There should be no expectations. It’s your money to do with, as you will, in your will.