Psychological Considerations in Writing a Will

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Have you decided it’s time to make a will? You may be surprised at the intense feelings you and your spouse experience in the estate planning process. If you have adult children, for example, how will you distribute your assets to them? The estate planning process can stir up feelings about your spouse and adult children that hadn’t surfaced before.

Source: Roberta Satow

Unequal distributions

The question of unequal distributions frequently arises when there is a disparity in the financial situation of adult children.

Many years ago I heard the story of an elderly married couple, Ellen and Tom. They died in a freak accident and their willpower added untold misery to an already shocked family. I remember the story because Ellen and Tom were psychotherapists and had two adult sons like me.

One of their sons was a successful businessman and the other was a teacher. They left their entire estate to the teacher in their will because they believed the rich son didn’t need their money. They thought they were making a rational decision based on the needs of their children. But the teacher felt guilty towards his brother for the disparity. He was angry with his parents for seeing him as a failure who needed their money to support his family.

The rich son, Jim, was furious with his brother and his parents. He had long felt that his parents were spoiling his brother; Jim felt his parents were rewarding his brother for his lack of interest in making more money. The parents’ decision created a permanent rift in the relationship between their sons.

The parents left a legacy of anger, guilt and resentment. Although they are psychotherapists, Ellen and Tom ignored the emotional significance of money. They ignored the historical relationship between their sons and the impact the legacy disparity would have on each of them.

The issue of unequal distribution also arises when one adult child has a family and the other does not.

Should wealth sharing be based on the number of grandchildren? Sal and Barbara decide to leave half of their fortune to their single daughter and give the other half to their married daughter, who has three children. The unmarried girl thinks she should receive half of her parents’ assets, while the girl with children thinks the distribution should be based on need.

The complexity of blended families

Bob and Marilyn got married in their 50s and each had children. Bob had two daughters and Marilyn had a son. When planning their estate, they had to decide whether their money should be split, evenly split, or unevenly split. Should his daughter receive the money she had saved and/or inherited, and should his children receive the money he had saved and/or inherited? Should her daughter get 50% of their joint assets while her two children share the remaining 50%? Or should each of the three children receive a third of the total?

At the time of their marriage, their ages complicate Bob and Marilyn’s situation. If they married in their 30s and each had children, they might be more likely to combine their assets and accumulate them over many years. If they married in their 60s or later, they may have kept their assets separate from the start. But they married in their 50s and each was likely to accumulate assets before they died.

Another consideration is the balance or imbalance of the assets brought into the marriage. Karen and Bill married in their 40s and each had children from a previous marriage. But Bill had great confidence. From the start of their relationship, he made it clear that he would use the trust money to support their lifestyle, but it would be passed on to his children when he died.

Likewise, Phil and Patty had a similar deal. Phil had a family business that he would pass on to his children, although he and Patty would spend the income from the business to support their lifestyle during their lifetime.

Estate planning can be emotionally and financially complicated. However, thinking about the emotional implications of your financial decisions can reduce the chances of leaving a legacy of pain and conflict for your partner, spouse, and children. Talking about it with them will make you aware of the multiple feelings attached to what may seem like a “rational” decision.

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