Your estate plan could be your last word to those you leave behind. If you are a parent, you need to think carefully about the message you will send.
Parents who leave unequal inheritances to their children risk fueling family feuds. But strictly equal bequests can also cause resentment if the heirs do not see the distribution as fair.
“Money can cause family discord, and you want to make sure you think about it and keep sibling relationships intact,” says Colleen Carcone, co-author of “Principles of Estate Planning” and chief strategy officer. wealth planning at TIAA.
Carcone recommends that its clients first think about how they define “fair”. For some people, fair means an equal dollar amount. Others may want to adjust the distribution to deduct the financial aid they have already given, for example, or to bequeath more to more needy heirs. Parents typically want to leave more to children who run the family business or help care for parents in their later years, says Marianela Collado, certified financial planner at Tobias Financial Advisors in Plantation, Florida.
Each approach has its merits — and its problems. With an equal dollar distribution, heirs may resent their wealthier siblings for receiving money they don’t “need.” Similarly, children who received less financial support during their parents’ lifetime may resent those who received more if the distribution of the estate does not reflect this imbalance.
Read: You need to make a will now more than ever
Unequal distributions can also cause resentment. The person who receives less than others may view it as a punishment, especially if the amount was set to reflect past financial aid or to account for personal wealth. (An heir I know calls this “the success tax.”)
What matters is how your decision is likely to turn out considering your family dynamicsand it may be different from what you expected.
Ask your kids what they think
Carcone once had clients whose son was far wealthier than his siblings — or his parents, for that matter. She encouraged clients to discuss their estate plan with their son, and they found he didn’t want what they thought.
“They thought, ‘We’re going to split everything into three because we have three kids and we love our three kids equally,’ Carcone explains. ‘But he said, ‘I’d rather the money go to my brothers and sisters, but what I’d really like is that collection of watches that grandpa left for you.”
In other families, anything less than a strictly equal distribution will cause discord. Leaving one child more than another would inflame those “Mommy (or Daddy) always preferred you” rivalries that can destroy sibling relationships.
Related: Why your estate plan isn’t as successful as you think
It’s your money, of course, so you can do whatever you want. But discuss your real estate project and intentions with your children could give you unexpected ideas and help you avoid future problems. If you’re reluctant, ask yourself why, says CFP Hui-chin Chen of Pavlov Financial Planning in Arlington, Virginia.
“If they don’t feel comfortable doing [their estate plans] knowing when they are alive could be an indication that they are just sowing seeds of discord when they are gone,” Chen says.
Remember to ask the children to share
A stumbling block for many parents is what to do with the family home or a much-loved vacation property. Some children may be more attached to real estate, while others would rather have the money from its sale. If you want your children to share the property, think about how that would work.
“Who is going to be responsible for maintenance, upkeep and expenses? Do all children have this desire? Do all children have this ability? said Carcone.
Also see: Why You Shouldn’t Give Your Home to Your Adult Children
Your children may have ideas about how they can successfully share ownership and costs, or you may get a little insight into the dissent that ownership can cause. In any case, it can inform your decision.
Leave a detailed letter
Carcone encourages you to tell your children about how you divided your estate and leave a detailed letter explaining the thinking behind your decisions. Such letters can avoid disagreements about what you said and what you meant. (As any parent knows, what we say to our children and what they hear can be very different.)
“Make sure they understand why you did what you did,” Carcone says. “No one wants to leave a legacy of family discord.”