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Now children – it’s time to talk about your inheritance…

August 7, 2015
Kind Hearts

Alec Guinness murders his way to the dukedom in Kind Hearts and Coronets

My wife and I were chatting this morning about the cruellest joke we could play on our children. We decided it would be this.

One Sunday we would invite them both over for lunch. The usual works – a nice roast, a bottle of wine and a creamy dessert. Then, before they could slink off to various couches to continue endless dialogues with their iPhones, we would drop the bombshell.

“We have something important to tell you. We’ve done our best for you. We’ve always supported you. Whenever you’ve run out of money we’ve always rescued you. You’ve both had a good education and both of you are on the road to self-sufficiency.

So we’ve made a decision about the future. We think that it will do you no good to cruise through your lives waiting for us to die in the knowledge that it will all be OK when we finally pop our clogs, because you’ll have an inheritance.

Trust us, it won’t be OK, because if you haven’t sorted out whatever problems you’ve put on hold until we go, no amount of money will help you once we’re safely under the sod. You have the ability to sort your own problems, and we expect you to do so.

Unlike you, there are many creatures in the world who can’t help themselves, who are endangered because of what we – the human race – have done to their environment. Your mother and I plan to make amends in a small way by helping to bring a species back from the brink of extinction.

So you need to be aware that we are leaving all our possession to a charity dedicated to saving the Himalayan Mountain Rat.”

Stunned silence, followed by tearful recrimination. Or maybe not. Perhaps “we fully understand, Mum and Dad, we’ll be fine. Go for it”.

Don’t worry kids, it won’t happen. Orangutangs maybe, but probably not Himalayan Mountain Rats.

But this, according to some “expert” my wife quoted from a newspaper, is what you should do if you’re planning to disinherit someone. As opposed to saying nothing, and leaving your children to discover the awful truth when the will is published.

It doesn’t matter whether the inheritance is a few pots and pans and a couple of trinkets, or a private bank and six Caribbean islands. One of the main sources of family discord, angst and fury is the fairness or otherwise of what you leave behind and who gets it. How many movies would never have been made, books never written and lawyers languishing in penury were it not so?

I consider it a big plus in my life that I never had to factor inheritance into my life calculations, because there was never going to be one. My father, one of the brightest people I ever knew, made a number of decisions in his life that resulted in him leaving nothing. In consequence my mother, who never had an independent income, left nothing too.

From the age of about thirty I realised that this would be so, and got on with my life. And I thank them for it, because although their life was dogged with financial insecurity, for me there was no parental safety net. They had paid for a good education, helped me as much as they could throughout my struggling twenties. But from then on it was down to me, and I knew it.

The situation with my kids is different. Unless I make a complete pig’s ear of managing my finances (and actually that means my wife, because she’s the financial brains of the family), there will be something for them to inherit. Or unless in my/our dotage we fall prey to some manipulative agent of a charity who morally blackmails us into signing everything over to Himalayan Mountain Rats. Or unless our entire wealth is dissipated by the cost of spending the last decade of our lives in a care home for the demented being bullied, restrained and force fed by unqualified, uncaring carers whose main purpose is to keep us alive for as long as we can continue to pay the fees. Or unless one of us goes first, and the one left standing ends up leaving everything to a new partner who latches on to us for the last few years and expects to live in comfort on the proceeds of our estate thereafter.

Such are the minefields of inheritance. And it doesn’t seem to matter what country you live in or culture you grew up in. The question of who inherits the goats and camels can be as much a recipe for murder and mayhem as the prospect of divvying up the family home in leafy Surrey or golden California.

The moral minefield is just as dangerous. Should a sibling who sacrifices a decade caring for elderly parents get more than those who live at the other end of the country, or perhaps at the other end of the planet, who are not in touch with their folks from one year to the next, and yet who suddenly reveal their filial piety when the end is nigh, and who hover like vultures waiting for their next meal to croak?

And how about the motivation of the sibling who takes up the burden of care? Do they really care, or are they just doing it for the money or house they will eventually inherit? In other words, is their love conditional or calculated?

It’s not just the offspring that tread through the minefield.

Parents manipulate their children by doing everything they can to ensure that their kids are emotionally and financially dependent on them. That way there’s at least one or two who will stick around and care for them to the end. There are cultures in which this is a moral obligation. Your parents raised you, you are responsible for easing them gently into the hereafter. Hence the anxiety of the elderly in China, where the one-child policy has left millions of parents without a family to care for them, and millions of single children torn between personal ambition and the expectations of society that you should care for your parents.

In some countries the inheritance laws are clear cut. In France, thanks to the much-maligned Napoleon, half of your estate goes to your spouse and the remainder is split equally among the offspring. If you have no spouse, the estate is divided up between your offspring or your nearest relatives.

In the UK, things are murkier. You can leave everything to the Himalayan rats. You can cut your children, or selected children, out of your will and leave everything to a partner or spouse whom you end up with after your original spouse has died. Your children can contest the will if they can prove that you were not of sound mind when you made a provision they object to. And they frequently do. The only winners on all counts are the lawyers. Even if the relatives succeed in overturning the will, the biggest legacy is often the bitterness that they in turn take to their graves.

So you could argue that the kindest solution is to spend all the money before you die, thus sparing your kids the prospect of a lifetime of animosity – between themselves if not against you. And besides, do you really care if you go to your grave with their curses echoing around your coffin? After all, you’re dead.

The trouble is, you don’t want to go on a massive splurge in your later years, only to find yourselves lingering on far longer than you anticipated, and in a state of miserable penury. Your kids won’t look after you because they’ll be pissed off at your selfishness, unless of course they’re motivated by love rather than calculation. So to paraphrase the old song, a mouldering we will go.

So what do you do to avoid a legacy of pain and resentment?

I have nothing to suggest beyond the Royston Book of Common Sense, but here are some suggestions:

  1. Bring your kids up to be self-reliant, or at least in the expectation that they will need to be self-reliant. Anything they get from you should be seen as a bonus, and not to be taken for granted. Do not exclude the possibility that you will decide to save the Himalayan Mountain Rat.
  2. Don’t manipulate your kids into doing things your way on the grounds that they will be favoured in your will.
  3. Establish the principle of equal shares of your estate, and let your kids know that this is what will happen, even if you do decide donate a part of your fortune to saving the rats. That way, what they do for you – like caring for you in your old age – will be for love rather than personal gain.
  4. If you must use disinheritance as a weapon, let them know the rules. It could be on grounds of behaviour, but it shouldn’t be about the way they behave towards you. After all, even if you can’t accept it, your own behaviour could be a contributing factor. The rules could include physical or mental cruelty, wasting their lives on substance abuse or even going off to fight for the Islamic State.
  5. If you do set conditions for disinheritance, they should never be about bringing shame on your family. It’s their lives they are damaging, not yours. I’m conscious that half the people in the world would disagree with this, but so be it.
  6. Make it clear that if your spouse dies and you find another partner, you will provide for the partner, but not in a way that substantially disadvantages your children. Letting the partner live in the family home until he or she dies is not unreasonable, but letting them live as the sole occupant of a twelve-bedroom mansion probably is. Treat your new partner according to their needs, not their desires.
  7. If you do leave your home on that basis to a partner who is not the parent of your kids, don’t deny your kids right of access to the home, and make sure that each of them immediately has something to remember you by.
  8. If you’re planning to leave money to charity, involve your kids in the decision. That way they will resent your decision far less because they have had a say in it. It would also help if you make donations during your lifetime, so that your kids don’t think that you have left the money to charity after a lifetime of giving nothing as some form of punishment against them.
  9. Don’t include one of your kids as an executor for your estate and not the others. That will create a possible sense of partiality that could result in a lifetime of tension among your offspring. Ideally, choose people other than your kids on whom you can rely for their impartiality, common sense and financial savvy.
  10. Don’t let it be known outside your immediate family that you’re contemplating leaving large sums of money to charities. If you do you could be plagued by agents who will use any means, fair or foul, to get you to cough up in their direction. The least those charities who use agents can do is have the courtesy to talk to you directly about how they operate and what kind of a difference your money would make. So talk to them first.

And finally, at the risk of sounding ridiculously pious, a suggestion with which you may violently disagree. If it’s not too late and your offspring are not already set in their ways, try to bring them up to see that money can be as much your enemy as your friend. That when you’re gone, nobody will care about how much money you made, but they will care about what sort of a person you were, because it’s your behaviour, not your money, that will have real consequences for future generations in terms of example, inspiration and the values that you instil in others.

As someone who inherited no money from my parents and yet remember them every day for the people they were and the non-material gifts they handed on, I speak from experience.

From → Social, UK

  1. Elif permalink

    Really enjoyed this article, Steve. Especially the ending. It reminded me of a car ride with our then young kids to see our lawyer just before moving overseas, to update our wills and appoint caregivers in the worst case. When they asked what we were going to do at the lawyer and we explained, our daughter, who was 5-6 years old at the time, asked in horror if we were going to die. We said, “No, no, of course not, but wills are necessary just in case,” and discussed the topic a bit more. Then there was silence in the car, and I thought, “Oh poor things, now they’re thinking about death; maybe we shouldn’t have said anything…” Then our daughter said, “Mama, if you die, can I have your blue necklace?” I said, “Yes, of course you can,” thinking, how sentimental. Then our son asked if he could have the Tintin rocket to which we said yes. Our daughter then asked if she could have my red lipstick, and the iron. And our son asked if he could have the ironing board. We stopped them before they got too carried away but we still laugh about it. The funniest was how after we told our lawyer and he had an initial chuckle, he asked if wanted the necklace and lipstick and Tintin rocket and the iron and ironing board mentioned in the will! Still not sure if he was serious. And they still ask if they can have the oddest things (a very old mug, a favorite measuring jug, a biscuit tin…) when we die… To me it means they have a happy family life and fond memories and these are items that will remind them of this stage of their lives. Well, at least I hope that’s what it means.

    • Thanks Elif. I’m sure that’s what it means. Little things mean a lot. We were very sad to discover a couple of years before my mother died that some of her jewellery had been stolen. By whom we knew not. But it meant that there were one or two things one of my siblings had set her heart on that was no longer able to be passed on. Fortunately, as your kids showed, it’s not always things of intrinsic value that mean the most. S

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