Who gets my stuff?

Posted by on May 13, 2014

Who gets my stuff?

How do we think about whom we want to name as beneficiaries for our Wills and Trusts?

For some people, it’s a no-brainer. A couple or single person may have lovely, well-adjusted children, and there’s no question that they will inherit it all. But one of the not-so-secret features of our society is that we don’t all have lovely, well-adjusted children.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I find that to be so true in estate planning. And, at the same time, I have some general advice.

Gina is 80 years old and has had a lively, creative life as a musician. She divorced long ago and has one child, a son named Jim who lives in the area and is not very nice or attentive when it comes to his mother. It’s not clear if he’s an alcoholic or just volatile. He’ll send his mother a greeting card one week and the next week he won’t respond to her phone calls.

Gina agonizes over whether to leave her house to Jim. She’d like to but he’s so mean to her and she could just as easily leave her house to her church or another charity.

Gina signed a trust leaving her house to charity, but then she felt guilty and wanted me to re-do her trust to leave the house to Jim. Then she had a car accident and Jim wouldn’t help her, so now she wants to cut him out of her trust altogether, but then she thinks maybe she should leave him some cash.

Barbara is a single woman who inherited a number of real properties from her mother and from her late boyfriend. She doesn’t have children but she’s got two nieces who are sort of like daughters. One niece is reliable and supportive. The other niece tried to steal some money from Barbara’s mother years ago, and this niece is generally not a good person. Barbara nevertheless made a trust naming both nieces as heirs and successor trustees. But then just a few weeks later, the bad niece said some really insulting things to Barbara and now Barbara wants me to re-do the trust to disinherit the niece.

What’s going on here is that many people have very complicated relationships with their blood relatives. It may be a child, a sibling, a niece or nephew, who haven’t behaved very well over a long time. For some people, it’s simple: don’t leave them anything.

For others, there’s a lot of guilt involved in leaving a close relative out. I find that most people leave their estates to their relatives even if they don’t like them. Guilt is often the reason why.

What Gina and Barbara are both trying to do is sort out their relationships and their feelings about their relatives through their estate plans. Each hopes that their relationship with a son or niece will improve one day. Each is using their estate planning, in their own minds, as pay-back or revenge, shifting with the winds of how the relationship is going this week or this month or this year.

This is not a good idea for a number of reasons. It’s fine to disinherit a child or another relative if that’s what one really wants to do, just as it’s fine to leave property to someone who hasn’t behaved admirably, to avoid a feeling of guilt or to prevent conflict with other members of the family.

One needs to be comfortable with one’s own choices, whatever they happen to be.

An estate plan is not a solution to how one feels about people.

Leaving someone out or keeping them in will not improve a relationship or reduce angst.

To work out one’s feelings about family members, to work out feelings of guilt, obligation, regret, we may choose to work with a skillful therapist. Once we’re very clear and settled about how we do or do not want to relate to someone in our circle, then we can make a clear-headed choice about how to structure our estate plan. And feel comfortable with ourselves, and be done with it.

What doesn’t work for one’s emotional health is make an estate plan into a tool for reward or punishment. To do so is guaranteed to not solve inter-personal relationships and to result in a continuing need to revise one’s estate plan.

Take a long view when considering including anyone as a beneficiary of one’s estate. How do you really feel, in your heart of hearts, about this person, not based on what they did or said yesterday but over a long time? How will you feel if you include them or leave them out? Can you rest easy with that decision? If not, do something else.