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Inheritance as a Source of Family Conflict

An inheritance is a gift of love, not an entitlement. For some, leaving an inheritance is passing on what one no longer needs to one’s children after one’s death. For others, the inheritance is the product of years of hard work, saving and sacrifice to create an opportunity for one’s children and grandchildren to have an opportunity to have a better life. Yet others view leaving an inheritance as a token of a appreciation for the love, caring and happiness received, particularly in one’s older years and in times of need.

If your goal is to protect a child’s inheritance, whether a minor or a dependent adult, you need to consider the maturity and integrity of those who inherit your property and those in whose trust you wish to place the safe-keeping and management of such property. An experienced estate planning elder law attorney may be able to provide you with helpful guidance with asset protection and effective inheritance planning.  To go to our Wills & Estate Planning page, click here: Wills & Estate Planning

The elderly often base their estate planning decisions, particularly who will inherit their property, on their relationship with their spouse and children. Other factors, such as fairness, need, dependability, and loyalty, may also play a role. Your relationship with these individuals may determine your ability to accurately assess their suitability to inherit or to protect another’s inheritance. While relationship tension is a great cause of stress to most people, elderly parents are especially hurt when they are disrespected, neglected or ignored.

Money issues are the leading cause of relationship problems and often tear families apart. It’s bad enough when a life partner abuses his or her own money, but a potential inheritance is someone else’s money. There can never be an acceptable reason to manipulate, deceive, coerce, steal or in any way jeopardize anyone’s financial security or peace of mind, or sacrifice family relationships, especially one’s parent or spouse.

Misplaced beliefs and expectations create tension, distrust and estrangement. Children, who mistakenly believe an “inheritance” is an entitlement, have a mindset influenced by unwarranted expectations, a vision of what they will do with the money when they get it, and a determination to protect “their inheritance” from being spent before they get it. Siblings who thought they were close often are shocked by how greed can lead to deception, betrayal, theft, and estrangement.

Parents who use the promise of an inheritance to manipulate their children to do their bidding create resentment and stress. The boomerang effect is that later the children may use the promise of their care services as leverage to secure an advance on their inheritance or to gain control over the frail elderly parent’s finances. The fall-out often is financial disaster and estranged relationships.

Understanding that money is a source of power, and corruption, and instilling good values in one’s children at an early age is important. Sadly, your own financial security and personal safety may depend on it. Money is a source of power, – the power to have better choices, the power to influence, the power to control, and the power to acquire and enjoy things one always thought was out of reach. And money can provide a much needed safety net. What you hope to be able to leave for your children as an inheritance out of love and caring may create a temptation that leads to abusive, even criminal behavior.

An inheritance is a windfall of free money or property, a once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire the fruits of someone else’s labors, for nothing. No wonder money can bring out the worst in people and destroy relationships. Misunderstanding over rights and obligations regarding inheritances and hurtful accusations regarding the motives of relatives often is the cause of avoidable family fighting and ill-feeling.

Who has the right to inherit? The answer depends on the context of the question. The correct emphasis is on the word “who,” not on “right.” If the decedent made a valid Will, the Will determines who will inherit the probate assets. The beneficiaries of non-probate assets are those who listed on accounts or life insurance policies or deeds to real estate either as co-owners or as beneficiaries. If there is no valid Will, the laws of intestacy, also known as intestate succession, provide the order of priority of those entitled to inherit.

An inheritance is NOT an entitlement. The owner of the property has the “right to choose” who will inherit. A recipient is never “entitled” to inherit. One has no legal obligation to leave anything to anyone. And no-one has an absolute “right” to an inheritance. If you are not chosen to inherit, you are out of luck. (* An exception is a spouse’s right to elective share.) The recipient of the inheritance gets the “benefit,” thus is known as the “beneficiary.”

When does the law decide who inherits? The laws of intestate succession apply only if one does not make a choice as to who shall inherit. Then, the law provides a prioritized list of who shall inherit. If there is no eligible beneficiary or the inheritance is not claimed, the property will escheat to the State.

Vulnerability to Abuse. Parents, particularly those who are elderly or disabled, who suffer from cognitive impairment, are not always aware of, or refuse to acknowledge, their condition and vulnerability to abuse. Children and other family members, who have lost their moral compass, employ a variety of deceptive acts to take an advance on their perceived inheritance.

Greed and temptation to secure an inheritance can blind one to the consequences of one’s bad behavior. Beware of sheep in wolves’ clothing! These people are not concerned that their conduct undermines their parent’s financial security and trust, or their siblings’ right to receive the inheritance intended by their parents.

Values. Children who respect their parents and value the concept of “family” make a real effort to maintain their relationships with their parents and siblings. Although this can be difficult at times, their belief in family and being there for each other in times of need is a core value that keeps families together.

Relationships are rooted in love, empathy, kindness and altruism. This bond builds resilience and creates a feeling of security and sense of well-being.  When one feels connected, there exists a feeling of warmth and caring.  When one is detached, one is more likely to dehumanize others and not care,

“Awareness” is particularly important for effective inheritance planning, – for those who give and for those who want to receive. If you make an effort to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you will see and understand things you didn’t notice before. You may also stop yourself from doing something you may regret later.

Although people want to be “right,” what they want more is to be understood. They don’t always know that. The way to help people recognize that is what is most important is give them that feeling, by showing respect, empathy and a little kindness. To be understood, one has to be heard, one’s feelings need to be validated, even if not agreed with, and transparency is essential. A smart approach to estate planning takes these issues into consideration.

The focus of understanding should be on what the parents want. After all, it is their money, their property. Don’t they have the right to decide who should get it? Understanding how parents feel when they are neglected and disrespected is important, because it leads them to reconsider their options, including punishment. They don’t want to resort to punishment and thinking about doing so causes stress. They want to do what is right, but feel that “doing right” is a two-way street. The children are so busy with their lives they don’t have time to think. The elderly often have plenty of time on their hands. When something bothers them, they cannot stop thinking about it.

Children who view and inheritance as their “right” can barely wait for that moment. They do not want their parents to squander “their inheritance” on such things as paying for care services or home improvement, or long term care, and their “input” on such matters is biased by their self-interest. They tend to be unhelpful, obstructionist even, in matters concerning their parents’ care and quality of life.

Inheritance issues often come up at time when one is under great stress. Emotions are raw. Judgments tend to be clouded. This is a time to take a step back, and get some professional guidance.
How you manage relationships with your family may determine whether you will inherit or be disinherited. It all starts with how you feel about yourself and your family. If you care about your family, especially your parents, that caring mindset will help you understand what’s going on and possibly play a constructive role. You can be a leader and help prevent family fighting, you can sit on the sidelines, or you can be the match in the powder keg.

It’s not about being right. It’s about doing the right thing. No-one likes to be taken for granted or disrespected. An important aspect of being a mature adult is how you behave in adverse situations, how you manage your emotions and treat others. The other person may well have done or said something wrong, but how you respond is a choice you make. What you say and how you say it matters.