My mother always said that when she died she'd divide her estate equally between my brother and me. But my brother has persuaded her to leave more to his – larger – family. Of course I want my nieces to be provided for, but surely their portion could come from my brother's inheritance, rather than taking a chunk out of mine. Am I being churlish, since I am in any case going to be comfortably off?
Yours sincerely, Saskia
A lot of the letters I've received about your problem have pointed out that your mother is free to leave her estate to whom she chooses. And that's true. Others have said you're just being selfish and if you're going to be reasonably off anyway, why ask for more? But I do think that's a simplistic view of the whole situation.
A will is never about money, it's about love. And my own feeling is that a parent should always divide his or her estate fairly between the children. Otherwise there are going to be constant feelings of resentment between them and a feeling that the parent loved one of them better than the other.
Obviously, if one child has already had chunks of money given to it in its lifetime, or has special problems, those factors should be taken into account – but discussed openly. If a grandchild needed full-time care for some reason, most people would understand why that parent would need a bit more than one with no children at all, like you. But again, I think this ought to be discussed so that everyone can agree that it's fair before the will is actually drawn up.
But your brother chose to have children. They didn't land on him by accident out of the sky. And from your original letter it seems that he'll anyway be just as comfortably off as you when she dies, so doesn't actually need her extra money.
My instinct is that when your mother dies you're going to have a row. Or, if not a row, feelings of righteous anger and misery, feeling your brother was always loved more than you (as, in you original letter, you suspect), and this will proves it. So why not bring the issues out into the open now, when they have a chance to be resolved, rather than wait for this timebomb to explode when you're all feeling raw and grieving?
It's easy to advise someone just to "get over it and get on with it", but it's not that easy to do. One's inner emotions have a way of hammering away inside demanding, if not expression, at least recognition. What you mother is doing is, no-one could deny, unfair. What you have to do is stand up for yourself. Insist on having a discussion – first with your brother and then with your mother and finally the three of you. At the very least you should have been party to this decision.
The grandchildren, unless they have special needs,shouldn't be part of the equation because if this were the case, then if you'd had ten children and your brother none, should you have virtually all the inheritance? That's nonsense. It won't be pleasant to talk about it now. But it'll be lot more pleasant than waiting until the decision is irrevocable.
Do the right thing
I am on the sidelines watching my step-daughter's family destroy themselves wrangling over what two of three siblings see as an unfair division of the spoils from their parents' estate. Yes, in the end one will have more than the others, like your brother. But if you are in any case going to be comfortably off, please don't rush into the boxing ring over this. Raw experience (and quite a lot of recent research) shows that the kind of happiness that sustains us as human beings can't be bought with money – while money can bring a lot of misery. While I think your brother is making a mistake that he may live to regret, he has presented you with an opportunity to be generous-spirited, which you can always be proud of.
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Make it fair
I would advise you to speak with both your mother and brother, making the following suggestion, which to me has always seemed a fair option when dividing assets upon death.
If there is yourself and your brother plus "others" (grandchildren, for example) then suggest your mother splits her estate into three. Equal thirds to both you and your brother and one third to be split equally between the "others". This has worked very well within my own family as we all feel we have been fairly treated.
Be the grown-up
No, you are not being churlish, Saskia, because what a minefield is the prospect of inheritance, made infinitely worse when it is a parent dividing an estate between children, for it goes straight to the heart of some of our deepest fears. Even supposing you adore your brother (and I think you could be allowed some ambiguous emotions here if he has persuaded your mother to change her will) there will also be lingering traces of growing up together and the division, not only of the last slice of cake, but of your parents' attention and love.
However, it falls to you to play the grown-up here and instigate the conversation. You need to sit down with your mother and your brother (and not include your brother's partner) and say, "this may sound silly and I really don't want to appear mean, but I am having some difficulty coming to terms with the decision you have both made." And then, my favourite tool, use a little silence. Let them explain to you their reasons for this decision – your honesty should put them slightly on the back foot. Try not to escalate the situation with anger or tears, and if either of them goes down this route, remain as calm as possible and let them get on with it.
This is a pragmatic ,honest approach and a way of letting your family know how you feel. You could soften the conversation by prefixing it by saying this does not affect your love for either of them. It doesn't sound like you are going to tear the family apart with feelings of injustice, so you may just have to learn to live with the situation, but I am sure you will be the better person for having taken such a grown-up stance.
Next week's dilemma...
Three months ago my father married again – my mother died four years ago when I was 20. I really resent this woman who refers to herself as my "stepmother". None of my siblings likes her. They try to be polite and my brother says I should, too, but why? When I go home this cow is sitting on my mother's settee, smiling away. I feel like refusing to speak to her.
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