A New York Times article by Paul Sullivan, called “When a Will Divides an Estate, and Also Divides a Family,” (June 20, 2014) is well worth reading. This post gives an abbreviated account of how a wealthy woman with advanced Alzheimers wrote her five granddaughters out of her will a week before her death. All her wealth was given to the woman’s daughters.
“This didn’t seem right,” said one granddaughter. “This is our birthright. We didn’t have our father here to defend us.” [ed: The father had died when the girls were young.] The granddaughter began a “painful, prolonged legal battle against her family, which eventually resulted in a financial settlement, but that money came with financial, emotional and family costs.”
The rest of the article offers insightful comments by lawyers on the subject of disinheritance. These issues are complicated and not necessarily clear. This is one reason why I recommend reading the entire Paul Sullivan article.
Sullivan writes: “Disinheriting family members is an extreme step and one that is not even allowed in many countries. John Davis, faculty chairman of the families in business program at Harvard Business School, has studied inheritance laws around the world and found that in most places people have limited discretion over leaving money to heirs. ‘Whether it’s sharia in Muslim countries or the Napoleonic Code, . . . what you give to your heirs is tightly prescribed,’” Davis said. “’Anglo-Saxon countries are the exception to this rule. In reality, unequal inheritance is rare even in the United States, though [Davis] often advocates for it to be used more, particularly when a family business is involved.
“People say to me: ‘How can I treat my son differently than my daughter?’ ” Davis ‘He’s different,’ [David explains.] Your daughter is really responsible. You son is a derelict who gets into fights with the family all of the time.’”
This irksome issue leads directly to the story of what happened in my own family. My family structure is sometimes referred to a “blended family”: I have one son by my first husband and an adopted stepson by my second husband. I consider him as much my child as my biological son.
My father was dead set against the second son receiving anything from him. He went so far as to write a codicil to his will, stating that no grandchildren by adoption would be legally entitled to any inheritance. I learned this only because my father’s private-duty nurse, with whom I had become a friend, found the codicil in the wastebasket of my father’s room in the nursing home. She sent it to me.
My father had refused to communicate with me for several years. The content of the codicil was surprising: I can only describe my father’s decision as one of a chess player who is able to visualize several moves ahead: not only was I not yet married to my second husband, but it was several years before I adopted my stepson.
After my father died my biological son got everything, excluding charitable gifts. A few years later the same son was given a very large bequest by my older brother, who, like his father, left nothing to my adopted son. When I learned the truth from the family attorney after my brother’s death (at no time did anyone in my family tell me anything) I experienced a wave of grief and helpless anger.
These two acts by my father and brother created a wildly unequal and unfair family situation, and the consequences have been playing out ever since. My younger son, now married with two young children, lives a financially marginal existence. Paying the bills is always a struggle. For many years I have found a few ways to try to level the playing field between my children, though I couldn’t, really; it was always far from level. Even though I have been very generous, my contributions are drops in the bucket when compared with my older son’s assets.
My next blog post will continue with the subject of giving, or not giving, bequests to adult children. “Passing Wealth Along: Emotional Complexities of Estate Planning,” delves into the tricky topic of “fair” vs.”equal.”