Estate and trust attorneys see people at their best and at their worst. We see them at the high points of life, but also at some of their darkest times. There’s a blessing in that in and of itself. But it also allows for a unique window into the human condition. And today, I’m reflecting on the non-monetary implications of inheritance – and perhaps a bit of why people behave as they do after losing a loved one.
Ask someone in the financial services industry – heck, ask just about anyone – and you’ll hear several stories about how things got ugly after someone they worked with or knew of passed away. Sibling vs. sibling. Second spouse vs. children of a first spouse. Even collateral relatives can come out of the woodwork and seek a piece of the pie. But if you dig further, or if you think back to your own stories, you’ll often hear a common theme – “it’s not about the money” or “it’s not like they needed the money.” Not always. But often.
So is “it’s not about the money” a lie? Or is something else at work? With the recognition that I’m playing the role on an amateur psychologist, I believe it’s more the latter than the former. Not always. But often.
Legacy is a frequently used term by the financial services industry. It can mean different things to different people, but everyone does leave a legacy. In my view, legacy is best defined as a non-monetary concept. I submit that legacy is the extension of an individual (or family’s) character and relationships beyond one’s natural life.
You see legacy in positive ways in the son or daughter who learned from his or her parents to treat everyone with respect regardless of their station in life or to be generous with those in need, even when it costs you something. But you also see it in negative ways – and not just in undesirable character traits. Sometimes the legacy of brokenness within a family left unresolved manifests itself in arguments over things and money. The fight may be an outgrowth of a difficult legacy’s impact on the heirs or perhaps an attempt seeking redress for past wrongs or embarrassment or sins associated with the deceased. In those cases, the fight isn’t really about the money.
Moreover, the stakes may feel raised because the division of the estate is in some ways more final than death. That search for favor or position within an estate would therefore naturally be pursued more energetically than one might seek praise from or time with mom or dad. To exacerbate things further, there may be fewer inhibitions to fight because the fight won’t lead the fighter to a diminished standing with the deceased and likewise less appetite to drop a defense by those on the other side of the fight.
By no means am I suggesting that every family will fall prey to these issues. But I do think understanding the dynamics in advance can assist a planner, but even more, his or her client, in avoiding or minimizing the damages associated with a battle over an inheritance.
What do you think?