Dear Ann Cannon • Longtime listener, first-time caller here (I’ve always wanted to say that!). The issue I have is as follows. I am in my late 60s and my wife is in her mid 60s. We are both in good health. We have two daughters-in-law and the one is wanting to know what she will get after we are gone. She is already dividing up our estate. We do not want any problems, but I do think there is a great deal of jealousy and greed that should be handled now. What is the best solution for us to follow?
— Nervous About What Comes Next
Dear Nervous • First, I want to say something to everyone whose parents are making decisions about their estates. Remember this: THEIR MONEY AND THEIR POSSESSIONS ARE NOT YOUR MONEY AND YOUR POSSESSIONS. So, do NOT run around making future plans based on the false assumption that you’re entitled to their stuff. You’re not. You’re only inheriting what they have because they’ve decided to be generous with you. Have I made myself perfectly clear?
Having said this, I’ve seen families ripped apart because parents didn’t make important decisions about their estate when they could have and should have. That’s why I was so impressed with the nearly seamless way things went down with my husband and his four sisters after their mother died (at the age of 98!) this past November. After receiving your letter, I asked for their advice. I share it with you below.
If you haven’t already, make a will so that whatever you have left by the time you die, your assets will be distributed according to your wishes among your children. In the name of keeping the family peace, however, I’d consider making things as equitable as possible.
Call a family meeting and tell your children that you plan to spend down your assets as both desired (cruise time!) and needed to cover living expenses and medical costs as you age so that you won’t be a burden to them. Let them know what your plans are. In other words, communicate, communicate, communicate.
Meanwhile, start doing what my mother-in-law did for many years — keep a specific list of your possessions and to whom you’d like them to go. Realize this list isn’t set in stone — it can be fluid based on people’s changing interests and needs. It’s not a bad idea to ask your kids which of your possessions they’re most interested in.
If you feel like there’s an item that more than one of your kids is interested in and you don’t really care who gets it, then draw straws or roll the dice or something that takes the decision out of your hands. (My husband had two aunts who stopped speaking to one another after their parents’ deaths because they both felt like they deserved the same painting that had hung in the family home. Obviously, this problem could have been avoided to some extent if a decision had been made beforehand.) (Also, it was a painting on black velvet, so I never really understood why both those aunts wanted it so much.)
Keep this list with all the other estate planning documents.
Also, I wouldn’t really include the grandchildren in these discussions. Some people are inclined to treat their own children as adjunct siblings when it comes to inheritance, but in my opinion, this can lead to trouble.
Speaking of grandchildren, after my husband and his sisters laid claim to the possessions earmarked for them, the grandkids were invited to come to the house and choose things from what was left.
And, finally, take as many opportunities as you can while you’re still living to speak your love to your sons, their wives, and their children.
Wishing you the best of luck.