When the Will Isn’t Equal

I love all you children equally,” an expression parents often use when one child asks who their favorite is. The child usually accepts this response and family life feels fair – until the child grows into an adult and is surprised to discover that mom didn’t express her love very equally in her will. During my tenure as a CFP and CPA, I have come across many unequal wills when helping clients update their estate plans. When I do, I always encourage my clients to carefully contemplate the potential outcome(s) of their last wishes and often point to a cautionary tale from my own family’s vault of memories:

My grandfather had three adult sons; two professionals and one perennial soul-searcher.  His youngest son (my uncle) had basically always struggled with life and was still living in my grandfather’s home when my grandfather passed away after a fall in his mid-eighties. A retired accountant, my grandfather had planned his estate carefully since he wanted to be sure that his resident child would be provided for.  Accordingly, half of his estate went into a trust for the youngest son and the remaining 50% was split evenly between the two “successful” sons (my other uncle and father). My grandfather, not wanting to upset his older sons, made sure to tell them about his plans in advance and gave them an opportunity to object, which they did not. Actually, they readily agreed to this division. However, when the will was read, the youngest son was taken by surprise.  Instead of being grateful for his larger inheritance, my uncle only saw unfairness – his father still didn’t trust him. In a short amount of time, his resentment toward his father and his “trusted” brothers grew and eventually tore their relationship apart. As a result, he didn’t speak to his brothers for over 20 years.

Although my grandfather’s will did not start a family feud even remotely close to the magnitude of the Hatfields and the McCoys, it certainly created a lasting legacy of jealousy and bitterness. If I could transcend the constraints of time, I would encourage my grandfather to rethink his unequal arrangement. For a good rundown of other reasons why unequal wills can sometimes be a bad idea, I suggest you read an article by Jane Bryant Quinn called “Will You Leave a Fair Will for Your Children?” on AARP’s website. I think she does a great job explaining how “equal inheritances help maintain family harmony when you’re gone.”