Here's a loaded question: Is it ever right or fair to leave your children unequal portions of your earthly gains and goods.
I've looked at this issue in previous posts. Mostly I've talked about situations where one child has done particularly well financially while the other, having devoted themselves to socially important but unremunerative work, has not. The answer I've come up with is that it's okay to tip the scales so long as you let your children know about the plan in advance--and assure them that money does not equal love, respect or pride in their accomplishments.
But situations are rarely straightforward. There are always wrinkles. Maybe the wealthier child has grandchildren galore and the "needier" child has none, or vice versa. Maybe one child lives far away and rarely visits, while the other lives close by and is a big and helpful part of a parent's everyday life.
A wrong move can lead to posthumous ill feelings among your children. We may not be there to see or hear it, but it's not something we want to cause. The issue of fair distribution is an age-old one. In the “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle points out that when people who are equal are granted unequal shares — or people who aren’t equal are granted equal shares — “quarrels and complaints arise.”
How do we square things? How should we parse the issue?
Here are some thinking points raised bycolumn for the NYTimes.
What does equal mean:
The challenge is to decide what, in some relevant sense, makes two people equal. The prospective heirs are equally children of the same parent. Some people think that’s the only relevant kind of equality; they leave their estates in equal shares.
Show me the love. Or not.
“To my beloved child, Jordan, I leave the bulk of my estate, as a reward for the great care shown to me in my declining years.” Isn’t there something unattractive about this? We don’t want to encourage practices that lead people to display care in expectation of a financial benefit. Indeed, one reason money is a troublesome idiom for expressing gratitude here is that it awkwardly suggests a mercenary motive for those years of filial piety.
The Indigence Argument
“To Jordan, I leave the bulk of my estate, in the knowledge that my other children are in no need of further financial assets.” Although this might be embarrassing to Jordan, it’s hard to see a basis of complaint from the other children. ...
Still, an economist might note that there’s an argument for worrying about needs-based inheritance, too. A child who knows that indigence will be compensated for at a parent’s death has less incentive to avoid that state. An economist might also point out that the same share of a parental estate is going to be worth more to the poorer child, in the sense of making a more significant difference to his or her life.
The major considerations that move people to favor equal shares, I suspect, is, first, that equal shares can express the idea that parents have equal care and concern for each of their children; and second, that the practice requires no comparative assessment of their children’s lives, virtues or needs. Notice, though, that this posthumous approach doesn’t match what we think is appropriate in parenting. When we’re parents, loving each child equally entails paying attention to each of them, taking note of their different appetites and aptitudes and responding specifically to them. Our equal love would be evidenced by our giving our tennis-playing son a new racket and our golf-playing daughter a new golf club — not by giving them each a tennis racket.
If the estate were to be divided in a way that favored one child over the other, the parent should make it clear why doing so was consistent with each having an equal claim to the parent’s love.
painting: "Trytich" by Oliver Lee Jackson at the National Gallery