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Astor & You: The Last Will and Judgment

October 10, 2009

Most of us won’t be spending our twilight years in a cell repenting for the sins of defrauding and manipulating a parent’s will, as Anthony Marshall, only child of Brooke Astor, seems likely to do. But this tawdry spectacle does offer lessons for parents and their adult children alike.

First, a parental legacy is not immune from the  fall-out of an ill-thought through will simply because there aren’t millions to bequeath.  You can successfully splinter the next generation and damage  sibling relationships with far less money. Because it’s not all about the money–it’s about how money is used to convey care and love.  I’ve seen parents do just about everything: Leave it all to one kid; skip a generation and leave it to the grandchildren, leave no instructions and have the siblings duke it out over who did the most, or was loved the most; and more reasonably, make an equitable distribution.  Equitable can mean proportionate to the care or involvement of the child who has assumed the care-giver function. Equitable can mean based on special needs or circumstances.  The pie doesn’t have to be divided absolutely evenly to feel fair.  Here are some fairness tips for parents and their adult heirs alike:

  • Any child who is or is likely to become the designated “care-giver” to an elderly parent, should make clear what they expect. This may feel unseemly, after all we’re supposed to care out of love, or at least obligation. But identifying what you expect beforehand gives everyone a chance to be considered, and avoid post-mortem lifelong resentments.
  • If a parent’s will doesn’t reflect that one sibling did more, the sibling group needs to act ethically and fairly, by offering more to that sibling.
  • Parents–leave something to everyone. Your will isn’t just about money or need, it’s your last chance to say “I love you.”  It’s also your last chance to punish a child. But is that really how you want to be remembered?
  • Siblings–If your parent’s will is unfair, it’s still up to the living to make it right. You aren’t absolved from this responsibility, because you’re “honoring” a parents’ final wishes.

Thank you Mrs. Astor, for focusing our minds on the legacy a will leaves. May you now rest in peace.

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