Don't Talk About It, and Don't Count On It...


Don’t talk about it and don’t count on it... an inheritance that is. Humans and money can be pretty unpredictable when combined. The mere mention of the word can cause parent/child discord, senseless sibling squabbles, and monumental mistrust among family members. Over the years, I’ve learned there’s no way to predict what folks will do with their money or what the fall out might be... emotionally or economically. 

It was 1976 and me and Pop were sitting around the kitchen table having a conversation about his Last Will and the Family Trust. I was a senior in high school and had just come to terms with the reality of mortality. I don’t recall exactly how or what I asked, but his answer to my question stuck with me until his death in 2002 and secured my seat on a therapist’s couch.

The details were what surprised me.... everything in Pop’s estate would go to his grandkids after his wife and own children had passed. During their lifetime, his own four kids would receive rental or dividend income from two pieces of real estate.   

I was stunned... a gaping mouth and a WTF look on my face, but nary a word to Pop. After all, what kind of a good daughter would press her own father for an explanation as to why he virtually cut his kids out of the family will? It made no sense to me and it hurt... badly.  

For years I hoped I’d misunderstood that 1976 conversation between me and Pop, but when my husband and I sought to purchase the family home after his death, I learned that my understanding was, in fact, spot on.

Still alive, Pop’s attorney assured me it was nothing personal... that at the time of drafting, structuring wills in this manner was common and considered the most effective means of protecting family assets from the Tax Man. Given that Pop’s half of the family Trust was irrevocable, it was a done deal.  

Mom was apparently in the dark about the details of her own Trust (prepared by Pop), but our purchase of her house brought it to the forefront and gave her an opportunity to make her own decisions. Drafted like Pop’s, but still revocable - she modified her four children right back into the picture. 

As Mom’s primary caretaker, I’m privy to all the gory details of her estate plan and finances. At 91.5, she lives her life comfortably but frugally, often mentioning her desire to “leave something to her children”. To this end, she’ll clip coupons and reuse anything and everything to save a buck; her goal being to pass those bucks on to her kids.

There’s something comforting in this, but even with the best intentions it may turn out that Mom’s generous plan will go sideways. She is presently able to stay in her home because I live next door.... bringing dinner nightly, taking care of trash, helping with errands and doctor appointments, etc. This arrangement keeps her well positioned for her golden years, but things could change in an instant.

What if Mom falls and has to go to a nursing home for rehab? Sadly, it’s possible she’d have to remain there. After the 100 days covered by Medicare, and if she didn’t want to risk loss of her real estate by accepting Medicaid, she could end up spending $100,000+ per year just to live. Anyone would run out of money at that rate. 

The reality is that I’d better not count my chickens (or Mom’s pennies) before they hatch. The economics of life are shifting in unanticipated ways, and inheritances may become a thing of the past. Our parents are living longer, needing their hard earned cash for housing and health care. Their Boomer kids have financial woes or their own, with the rapidly rising cost of living, exorbitant college loans, and often, the cost of caring for their aging parents who ran out of money.

Our friendly financial planner says never count on an inheritance ... practical advice that makes sense on every level... economic, emotional, and tactical. It wasn’t mine to begin with and what my parents do with their money is none of my business. As for Pop, I choose to believe that his intentions were good and that his attorney (specializing in real estate and not estate planning....) steered him in a fiscally responsible direction, perhaps skimping on consideration of family feelings. The alternative would be that Pop felt his children weren’t worthy, and/or weren’t responsible enough to handle a windfall; both scenarios being difficult to believe or conceive.    

Ultimately, although Pop’s Trust decisions may have stung, he did leave my mother financially secure for which we are all grateful. She’s set to enjoy the rest of her journey here on earth in comfort, and although I can’t count on or predict the length of it, I’m hoping it will be a good trip no matter what the cost.

Emily Gaffney4 Comments