by Richard Dri
After Mary died, I began rethinking our mutual agreement to treat each child equally.
As a widower, I must have the confidence to make my own decisions even if it means contradicting my late spouse’s positions.
When Mary and I drafted our Wills, we agreed to leave everything to the surviving spouse and on second death, equally to our three children. After Mary died, I decided not to change my Will and left my three kids inheriting any remaining assets equally.
Recently, I questioned whether I made the right decision. I asked myself: do I still agree with an equal distribution or should I treat each child differently?
Equal versus Fair
In my mind, an equal distribution of assets means that each child receives one third of my remaining assets (I have three children). A fair distribution assumes my children receive a portion based on another metric (e.g., needs, family participation/involvement)
From my experience as a financial planner, most clients believe that a sibling “war” will erupt if they leave their children different amounts of money, instead they opt for a “less controversial” route and distribute their assets equally on second death. Mary and I belonged to this group.
But does this decision make sense?
Let’s review two reasons it may be fair to leave each child with a different amount.
- Different needs
At the moment, my sons have great jobs, are engaged to independent and employed women and each own a starter home. My daughter is younger and is completing her undergrad degree. She lives with the best dad in the world, Me.
No one can predict the future but what if one of my kids experiences one (or more) of the following:
- A costly divorce and a second marriage
- A bankruptcy
- An illness/sickness
- A disabled child
- Becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol
- Unable to maintain a job
Each of the above situations will negatively impact my child’s financial position. I feel responsible to help this child while I’m alive and potentially after my death by providing him/her a larger inheritance.
2. Different degrees of family involvement.
Currently, my three children live in three different cities and their family input varies. Again, I don’t know what the future holds but what if one of the situations below occurs:
- A child becomes estranged from the family
- A child becomes my caretaker (I hope this never happens)
Personally, I think that a child’s involvement or lack of involvement in family matters should be a factor in deciding how to divide assets after death.
If one child ignores the family or fails to engage in family issues, is it fair to allocate this child with an equal weighting of any heritances? I don’t think so.
Cash or Assets
After deciding on an Equal or Fair allocation for my children’s inheritance, the next decision is to decide if I should leave assets or cash.
For example, some families leave the cottage to one child and the family home/a stock portfolio to the others. Even if the family home/stock portfolio and cottage have equal values, I don’t like this approach and prefer leaving children cash.
As a long term investor, I appreciate that assets grow at different speeds. This causes me to worry that one child’s inherited assets may grow faster than the assets given to his/her sibling, causing conflict and resentment among the siblings
As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I’ll convert my assets to liquid investments and instruct my executor to distribute cash and not assets to my beneficiaries. The kids may proceed as they wish with their portion of the cash and hopefully, they will all be very successful long term investors.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
I’m leaning toward treating my children according to their needs (not equally) and I’m prepared to communicate the “why” behind my choices during my lifetime (not after I’m deceased).
From my experience as a financial planner, many parents refuse to share their dying wishes with their children before their death. I think this may be the biggest estate planning error anyone can make.
If I change my Will, I plan to hold a family meeting so my Will may be read, and the kids have an opportunity to ask questions.
I may find that a child feels surprised and/or hurt by my decisions. A family meeting provides the opportunity to explain my reasons and my intentions.
Occasionally, I have seen children raise legitimate issues that parents have either accidently ignored or have not properly addressed. Having the meeting before death provides an opportunity to change the Will to reflect the consensus and reduce conflicts after death.
Many readers may disagree, but I feel kids should receive their inheritance based on what’s fair (e.g. needs, family involvement), and not equally.
At the moment my children are young, and I see no reason to justify providing unequal inheritances. However, if this changes I’ll use the “needs” metric to help decide how to fairly allocate the assets left behind.
Please let me know what you think, should assets be allocated equally or fairly? If you select fairly, what metric will you use to help make the allocation.