- Chapter 12 -
THE FAMILY INHERITANCE
young woman from Chicago was visiting a friend in New Orleans and was planning to go sight-seeing. She saw an early copy of Lessons in Lifemanship lying on the coffee table. Intrigued by the title, she picked it up. She did not go sight-seeing. Instead she read the whole book.
The chapter which meant the most to her was this one about the family inheritance. With a cry of anguish she said, "If only my sisters, my brother and I could have read this ten months ago." In their case there was plenty enough to go around, but, as in many similar cases, this did not prevent a family fight.
One of the ugliest displays of human behavior takes place when heirs start fighting over an estate. Old sibling rivalries and antagonisms can erupt, and greed enters the picture. Perhaps spouses of the heirs join the fray, and other in-laws. Finally, the trouble starts if they all begin to hire lawyers, and one attorney says, "Don't let them get away with that. We can beat them in court."
Sadly, when fighting over a will, families frequently get split apart for life, and wounds are inflicted that never heal. What may start as an apparent minor disagreement gets blown up, and people polarize. Two of the families we knew well when we were young split apart, and it was tragic to watch. In one case, a father left a disproportionate amount to one daughter who, in his opinion, needed financial support more than the two other siblings, but these two felt the arrangement was too disproportionate and unfair. So they contested the will, and after a long, drawn-out, vitriolic controversy in which alienation developed and legal fees mounted, they all lost.
In another case, a son-in-law was running the family wholesale hardware business when his wife and three other sisters inherited the family estate which consisted largely of the business itself. The division was named as being equal for the four siblings, but the son-in-law, in complicity with his wife, maneuvered the situation so that he and his family ended up with the lion's share. This feud was stimulated by in-laws, and the wounds are still unhealed.
I would like to plead with people, "IT ISN'T WORTH IT." Relationships are more important than money or possessions. Siblings who may not feel very close at the time of an estate settlement find frequently that, with time, they grow closer together. It is unfortunate to destroy this possibility in a distribution feud, especially when the frequent result is that no one wins. The lawyers are the ones who profit.
Finally, how broken-hearted the parents who provided the estate would be to know what effect it had on their family members.
Realizing the threat, heirs can make a determined effort to bring about an amicable settlement if they are not fortunate enough to be in a family in which this takes place naturally. And there is always the possibility that some elements of the distribution can be turned into memorable experiences.
This is what my sister, Helen, my two brothers, Jim and Richard, and I did when we divided personal things, household items, and other material possessions of our parents' estate. We had a "choose-up." By drawing cards, we established the order of priority, with an arrangement whereby there was a rotating first choice. Wives were helpful; Rubie helped me and Jill helped Jim. Helen was a widow with a completely furnished home of her own and Richard was a bachelor, and these differences were reflected in what individuals wanted. Sentiment, or items needed in new households, meant more on occasion than dollar value.
My obvious first choice was the silver service which was given to my father when he was President of the Chamber of Commerce, and so engraved with the name Bryan Bell. But Richard's first choice was a very old needle point motto from the wall which had been handed down in the family. A refrigerator and a washing machine were more valuable to newly-married Jim. Richard got the whole dining room set with a table, chairs, and sideboard, which he later had refinished and which turned out to be far more attractive than the rest of us realized. He pulled a coup! We all wanted the ice cream spoons, ornate and fluted, with strawberry embossment, which we had only used for eating ice cream, the memory of which gave them special value in our minds. These were not the first choice for any of us, but we had to try to figure where in the priority they might be for the others. Helen won out. She later gave them to Richard as a wedding present.
The family choose-up was a great evening, with many chuckles. We all have a fond remembrance of it.
I had another experience which might be beneficial for others to know about. My sister had a dear friend who charged her with distributing her personal effects among 17 cousins, many of whom did not like each other. What an assignment! So I offered to help, especially as I did not know any of the cousins.
First, we made a monetary appraisal of each item, keeping the figures low so that if anyone acquired something, it seemed like a real bargain. Then we added up all the dollar values and divided by 17, giving each person a credit for a choose-up. Ample opportunity was provided to view the effects and study the assigned values. Positions were determined by drawing cards, and individuals made choices in sequence which were carefully recorded. Those who chose more than their credit had to put in cash but could not get their items until they paid, and those who did not use all their credit got refunds. They all fell into the spirit of the occasion; there were no arguments. One woman exclaimed, "This is fun."
Another consideration for avoiding controversy is for parents to exert great caution in trying to dictate what heirs should do. Times change, and so do circumstances, particularly if in-laws enter the picture. As a general rule each generation should decide for itself. An example of this, which has been cited for decades, relates to a wealthy man whose assets were all tied up in a business which he thought was eternal. So he arranged that his heirs could never dispose of the stock. The business involved moving freight with horses and wagons, and his descendants watched it decline in value to zero.
Problems arise if parents try to force children into a business to preserve it. This particularly happens if the father started or built up the business and his ego and personality have become deeply involved with his creation. Much misery has resulted from such cases. Maybe the heir or heirs do not have the temperament, the ability, or the desire to carry on such a business. Again, although there are some unusual exceptions, each generation should decide for itself.
A tragedy can occur when children are required or think they are required to preserve some physical asset, such as the old family home or vacation spot. In so many cases, people don't own a house; the house owns them. It can become a particular problem if the asset, like the dear old family home, becomes expensive to keep up, and some members have less interest and less money than others. Woe unto the unfortunate individual who becomes the collection agent.
Penelope was a lovely, charming and bright woman, who felt she had been charged with taking care of family property called "The Mountain." She never married, because she lived in isolation on The Mountain. To her this family possession became an idol. Penelope died before the property ever was developed, and it was felt she sacrificed her life to a material object.
Then there is the asset that produces income, like the family farm or business. How is the money to be divided? How much money is to be put back into the property to improve it? And if one family member operates it, what does he or she get paid? A farm or a business is an asset, not an idol, and if it creates disharmony, perhaps the heirs should consider a sale.
With regard to preserving a business or an asset, those making wills should consider the fact that people in the next generation may move and develop other interests. Or in-laws may enter the picture who have different views. Additionally, some heirs may need money and resent the fact that part of their heritage is tied up in a physical asset.
My father's goal was family harmony above all. He cautioned that if we got into arguments over money or material objects after his death, he would kick the top of his coffin off! Fortunately, this turned out not to be necessary. PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THINGS.
Many lives are ruined by an inheritance. Few people can handle instant wealth, particularly when it is not earned, as is illustrated in the lives of many lottery winners and trust bums who live on an inheritance and do nothing constructive with their lives.
A wealthy man, in order to reduce inheritance taxes, settled a large sum on his grandson, so that it would not go first to his daughter and then to the next generation, with double inheritance taxes. The young man could not wait for his 21st birthday at which time he received his inheritance and packed up his van with his sleeping bag, his guitar, and his girl friend and took off for California. He has not led an exemplary life since.
There are worse things than taxes. Many unwise moves are made in an effort to avoid them. A prominent woman in our city, advised by an inexperienced lawyer, settled her estate on her daughter in order to avoid an inheritance tax. The ungrateful daughter moved to Italy and the unfortunate woman found herself in a state of poverty to such an extent that she resorted to suicide. My daughter Beverly, who is very idealistic, and I were once discussing the corrupting influence money frequently has, and I asked her, "Beverly, would you like me to disinherit you?"
"I have thought of that;" she replied. "Maybe it would be a good idea."
"I couldn't do that," was my response, "but I will make a deal with you. I won't disinherit you, but you can give it all away, providing you give it to causes on which you and I would both agree. Art communes and kooky political groups, no. The United Way and welfare agencies, yes."
She smiled, stuck out her hand, and said, "Shake." We shook on the deal.
This certainly does not mean that parents should not provide for their children or set up educational funds for grandchildren. And I do not expect that when Beverly gets an inheritance she will give it all away. Passage of time tends to moderate such desires!
But money can be left on a phased basis. For instance, a man in Boston finally came into his trust, although he had been receiving the income from it. He was 65 years old. Those New Englanders have a reputation for preserving capital. That is an extreme example, but it is possible to name sequential ages in a will to keep the legatee from blowing it all at once. Someone we know received his trust in two parts, one when he was 21, which he lost in trying to show the donor's friends what a good business man he was, and the other at 25, which he handled with much greater care. Another plan was instituted by a cautious woman I know who designated 25, 30, 35, 40, and 45 for distribution to her children.
Of course, there is no substitute for instilling in heirs a sense of responsibility and a desire to use money wisely. By the time they reach a reasonable age, it is possible to make a better assessment as to how children will respond, but it is still wise to avoid giving any person what amounts to a burden, a responsibility, and a temptation all rolled into one with too much money at once.