The two most boring words in a parent's vocabulary: Estate Planning. Within that world, the most volatile words are Unequal Shares. Whether we have a gargantuan billion-dollar estate to divvy up among our children or just a small savings account to apportion (or somewhere between those two extremes), we may have reasons to deviate from the mean.
The mean, of course, is to divide whatever we have equally among our children. That way we are likely to head off squabbles--and possible litigation--among our heirs. It's true that we're no longer around to witness any ugliness that may ensue but as financial advisors are fond of saying, "Most of us would like to be remembered for who we were, not for what we had." (Backing that up, a 2020 Merrill Lynch study found that two-thirds of us want our family to remember us as the people we were; only 5 percent ticked the box for wanting to be remembered for our accumulated wealth.)
Would a positive memory be besmirched by our kids fighting over what we've left them? Let's go to the research again. An Ameriprise survey found that, after we were no longer around to adjudicate, 70 percent of the fights between and among siblings involved how an inheritance was divided.
“With unequal inheritances, you run the risk of causing sibling animosity,” one estate planner said. “If you go this route you need to manage expectations so you don’t have one sibling blaming another.”
Why go the unequal route? A friend of mine with a disabled daughter has set up a special trust for her care and asked her sons to manage that trust. Most of my friend's assets will go into that trust. Her sons understand why and what their family responsibilities are.
There are families where one child is super successful financially and the other works in a worthy but low-paying field. In some families, one child has remained close to her parents while the other is estranged or one child manages to visit often but the other doesn't, or one has several children and the other doesn't.
As parents we may have all kinds of valid reasons for carving our estate into unequal shares. And a number of us are doing so. In fact, the percentage of parents who left unequal inheritances to their children more than doubled between 1995 and 2010, rising from 16 percent in 1995 to 35 percent in 2010.
The key to avoiding sibling spats over unequal shares is pre-planning. As I've noted in my posts here and here , while you're still in good health or of sound mind, it pays to sit down with your child (especially the one with the diminished share) and explain what you're doing and why. Facts alone may not be enough. Their emotional understanding of the unequal share may be helped by our reassurance that their share of our worldly goods is no reflection of how much we love them. Estate plan aside, it never hurts to remind our children of our unmeasurable love for them. They're never too old for that.
art: Robert Rauschenberg