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You Can't Take it with You

Family squabbles over Mama's baubles
The ugly side of estate planning

What's a mother to do? Sometimes, the ugliest chapter in the life of a family is when the matriarch or patriarch passes on. Deciding whom gets the family heirlooms can be a real source of dissension. Family squabbles can develop over Mama's baubles.

Because "you can't take it with you," when a loved one dies, families are left with the task of divvying up Mom and Dad's possessions. Oddly, however, many siblings end up arguing and parting ways over stuff that ultimately, they can't take with themselves either.

Let it start with you

So how do you avoid this mess? Here are a few simple suggestions.

  1. Sell all of your earthly possessions and spend the proceeds on perishable items such as fresh peas and broccoli. Don't buy the canned stuff, because it will last longer than a week and by the time you are buried and the lawyers show up, there will still be cans of food left over.
  2. Don't shower for one to two weeks prior to your passing. This will mean that no one will fight over your clothes.
  3. Never die. This one eliminates the need to take the radical steps outlined in numbers one and two.

Honestly, there is probably no way to avoid the family squabbles. Unless everyone involved has the proper attitude, it will get messy. Let the proper attitude start with yourself. In the end, a good relationship with your siblings is much more valuable than Mama's heirloom wall mirror. Regardless of your siblings behavior, always take the high road. If the only thing you are left with is your self-respect, you are better off anyhow.

Set the example for your own children by deciding in advance that hay, wood, and stubble are not worth arguing over. Consider this: the items that you buy today could one day be a source of arguments for your children. That is just downright stupid. It is equally stupid for you to argue with your siblings over the items your parents bought 30 years ago or that their parents bought 60 years ago.

Here is a sobering truth. Suppose you are living in the home that your great grandfather built 90 years ago. Are you aware that when you die, you might be leaving your home to a child who will rent it out to college freshmen? "Horrid," you say? Would you feel differently if that monthly rental income helped pay for your grandson's kidney dialysis? Or how about your granddaughter's college education? Or how about your son's annual trip to Vegas? Any of the above could happen. It is true that one person's trash is another person's treasure. It is equally true that one person's treasure is another person's trash.

Waiting for Mama to die

Yikes! That sounds crass. Are you doing it? Oftentimes, the choices we made 10 years ago still seem to haunt us. Sometimes, it is the choices that were made for us 10 years ago that still seem to haunt us.

Was there a family crisis that left you in debt? At age 18 did you think college seemed like a waste of time? Did your jerk husband divorce you and leave you with three kids and little income? Did you get injured on the job? Did your home burn down without insurance protection? Did you choose a noble career with pauper wages? Has your husband been unemployed twice because of downturns in his business sector?

Now the flip side. Did your brother marry into a wealthy family and get a cushy son-in-law job as president of a big oil company? Did your sister invent the thingamajiggywhopper, go public with her company, and retire at age 42 in the Hampton's? Did your brother-in-law win the lottery? Did your older sister never marry, live at home, and take over the family business? Did your younger brother put himself through medical school, become a plastic surgeon, and now he only works three days a week?

Are you the unlucky one while your brother or sister got all the breaks?

Are you ready for the bad news? Your parent's death is not your ticket to success. If you feel like you have always gotten the short end of the stick, you will probably still feel that way after the will is read. Why? Because your problem is not just a money problem, it is a spiritual problem. You don't have to be rich to be greedy. And no matter how rich you are, you can always be envious.

How do you learn to be content with what you have? How do you learn to live better and get out of debt? A good place to start is taking a course from Crown Financial Ministries.

What is fair?

How do you divide up your estate fairly among your children? That's a tough question. Define fair. That's a tougher question.

Let's look at some scenarios assuming that you have one successful child, one getting by, and one who is always broke:

  1. Do you split it evenly three ways? What could be more fair than that? Your two less successful children might wonder why you even gave anything to the one who "already has it made."
  2. Do you give nothing to the successful child and split it 50/50 between the remaining two? Did you just punish success and reward failure?

Help with estate planning

Here are some resources regarding estate planning:

Hay, wood, and stubble. Eventually, it all gets used for firewood or compost.

James G. Lewis

Copyright 2000 - 2013 James G. Lewis All rights reserved.