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Cut Out of the Will? What to Do About Unequal Inheritance

Talk about awkward: One woman’s parents are planning to divvy up their estate waaaaay unfairly. Our answer guru has some smart advice.

Cut Out of the Will? Here's How to Handle the Family Drama | NextTribeDear Answer Queen:

My parents have asked me what I think about cutting one of my siblings out of their will. I don’t even want to get involved with this issue, let alone figure out the answer for them. Help.


Calgon, Take Me Away

Dear Calgon:

You haven’t given details here, so I’ll use that opportunity to queen-splain a few possibly obvious reasons parents might divide their endowment differently among their offspring. First, one child might have more financial need than others—because of illness, divorce, job loss … all those unexpected inconveniences that have a way of cropping up in lives. Second, one sibling might be wealthy enough that an inheritance wouldn’t make much difference for him or her when it could be life-changing for the other(s). Third,  one kid might have received more from the parents along the way—for grad school, a house down payment, whatever—and the will feels like a way to even this out. Finally, parents might be closer to one (or more) of their children—or estranged from one—because of different values, politics, proximity, etc.

So a person’s decision to lop one child out of a will—or leave one kid more than others—could be pragmatic (Janey’s medical expenses are so high; we wanted to help), preferential (Jamila stayed close by and she helps take care of us/we see her children more, so we felt she deserved more), or just to get the most bang for their buck (Suzie makes a fortune and Johnny married into money, so 10K won’t mean a thing to them, whereas you, dear …).

 An inheritance should be a pleasant, happy, benevolent thing, not the opposite.

All these reasons make sense to me. And, of course, everyone can do whatever the hell they want with their money. (Duh.) But dividing an inheritance differently among children—and/or grandchildren—can lead to all manner of strife and chaos among the relatives who live on.

Convenient example: When, let’s just say, a “friend’s” grandmother died, she left equal amounts to her three children, but unequal amounts to their collective ten children—her grandchildren—based on which one of them she preferred (which was partly based on which children she preferred—she had a difficult relationship with her daughter, which led to a more prickly relationship between her and that daughter’s children).

The result was that those who received less felt hurt, angry, and cheated, and those who got more felt guilty and eventually defensive: Why shouldn’t they inherit more when they had visited her more, called her more, and just generally given a crap about her, while the others hadn’t? Which then led to, “Of course, even one of those (more-getting) siblings had in fact rarely called her, so why did she get as much as her siblings, whereas the cousin who had sometimes plowed her driveway was left out along with his siblings … and so on.

Let’s just say it didn’t end well.

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The Dreaded Conversation

Cut Out of the Will? Here's How to Handle the Family Drama | NextTribe

Poor sis might not even see that single dollar. Image: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

Which is sad, because an inheritance should be a pleasant, happy, benevolent thing, not the opposite.

In your case, though, there’s a chance, if a remote one, to save this exact sort of havoc from happening because your parents are actually asking your opinion. And while I get that you don’t want to think about their death, or their money, it seems like you should at least honor their request for a conversation about it.

It might be good for your parents to explain that decision to him beforehand so it doesn’t force you to fight once they’re gone.

To me, the ideal convo might go something like this:

You: Mom and Dad, I know you wanted to talk to me about your will and about possibly cutting Joey out of it because he is wealthier than we are/has moved to the tiny glacier-covered island of Bouvet and is never coming back/has chosen money-laundering for his career and that doesn’t sit well with you/I actually don’t know why you want to cut him out; would you mind explaining it to me?

Them: (wanh wanh wanh, those Peanuts cartoon parents’ noises)

You: Thanks for explaining. I will respect whatever you decide to do, a) and I understand and support your decision; b) but I want you to know that I think it would be better to divide things equally between us; c) or  maybe you could do something that allows you to give a little more to Lacy, Stacy, Tracy, and me but still doesn’t cut Joey out completely so it doesn’t lead to resentment or even (yes) a lawsuit. And it also might be good to explain that decision to him beforehand so it doesn’t force us to all fight each other like animals once you’re gone.

Or something like that.

Am I getting warm here, at all?

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A Queenly Plan

When I think about what I myself might do in 300 years when I die (on the chance I die with any spare cash to my name), I think this: I can’t imagine not leaving my children—or grandchildren, if I’m lucky enough to have any—equal amounts when it comes to money, though of course it’s easy enough to say that now. But if I felt someone needed something badly and I could help, I might make an exception and leave that person more. And if there were another relative or a friend I felt especially close to, I might leave them something special or meaningful—just as I will leave something to the charities and causes I most care about—and I would hope others will understand that (and if not, well, who cares). But I might explain it to my survivors beforehand so I could hear them out if they had something to say about it, make changes if I agreed, and die with a guilt-free conscience.

And that’s all I’ve got on this sober topic. It’s spring, the cherry trees are blooming, the baby bunnies are hatching, and it’s time to go out and celebrate life.


Answer Queen

A version of this story was originally published in April 2019. 

Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels—GoneSweet Ruin, and My Sister’s Bones—and two anthologies, The Bitch in the House and The Bitch is Back, which was an NPR “Best Book” of 2016. She’s contributed articles, essays, and criticism to The New York Times, Elle, O—the Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many other publications. 

More Answer Queen

By Cathi Hanauer


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