What to do with what you leave behind?
We walked them across the street by the hand. We fed them, clothed them, drove them, hovered over them. And now that our children are adults, do we owe them anything more?
Some seniors say yes.
They say we should arrange our assets (if any) so that the kids and grandkids inherit everything.
They say that you’re always Mom or Dad. They say that you don’t really need one more fancy trip. They say that leaving money after you’re gone is a final burst of love.
Of course, the other side of that coin attracts many believers, too.
They say that adults have to sink or swim on their own. They say that to expect money from a parent is to dampen one’s own ambition and drive. They say that a senior’s money is his or hers, and that’s that.
My pal, Rob, says it especially tartly. “The last check I write will bounce,” he tells me, often.
That’s his way of saying he plans to leave nothing to his descendants. If they don’t like that, well, he won’t be around to hear their complaints.
So much of this dispute depends on how much money we’re talking about and who we’re talking about.
To squabble over an estate of a few hundred dollars is self-evidently silly. And we’ve all known people from super-privileged backgrounds who toil endlessly and vigorously, even though they don’t have to. There’s no approach to this issue that will satisfy everyone.
But that doesn’t mean that adherents on one side or the other will be quiet. They believe passionately in the correctness of their “take.”
If you want to divide a social event into two camps, raise this subject. It’s guaranteed to produce a 50-50 split.
I recently proved the case, at a friend’s 80th birthday party. She was radiant and delighted. So were the many guests. We should all have such a joyous celebration of a milestone.
I found myself seated beside a woman who was the birthday girl’s older sister. She confided to me that she didn’t admire her sister’s decision to spend hundreds on herself at a party.
“When I go, all of my money will go to my family,” she said, proudly.
A tablemate — perhaps 30 — overheard. She asked if the woman was really begrudging her sister an epic birthday party. “It’s not as if she’s spending every last cent she has today,” the young woman said.
The older sister said that didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that the birthday girl’s kids and grandkids were well launched.
“It’s a matter of belief,” she said. “You can’t take it with you. Why not leave it to the living?”
A third person piled into the conversation. She said that money always corrupts. Better to earn your own keep at every stage of your life, this woman said. “It’s not just about dollars,” she said. “It’s about pride.”
Then a fourth person! She said she had just been discussing this subject with a neighbor. The neighbor’s mother had died recently and had left everything to her grandchildren — skipping a generation. Each bequest was substantial, up into the several thousands.
One grandchild immediately blew the entire bequest on drugs. Every cent was gone within four months. So, said Conversationalist Number Four, the neighbor’s story proves that giving to family can actually induce bad behavior.
Little Old Me had been listening intently (and taking notes surreptitiously). I decided that this was the moment to be Participant Number Five.
I suggested that there was a third path: charity. Rather than risking or creating family ill will, I said, why not set aside a serious hunk of money for a good cause?
Could be paid out now. Could be paid out later. Regardless, I said, this would not only sidestep squabbles. It would put dollars to work in ways that the world sorely needs.
One of the women wondered if this, too, might produce family tensions. What if Uncle Joe wanted to support the Boy Scouts and his brother wanted to support the Red Cross?
I agreed that this was possible. But I trotted out an approach that had worked in my own family.
A rich uncle set aside a large pot of dough for good causes, while he was still very much alive. But he didn’t make the sole decision as to where the funds went. He convened a family council once a year.
Each member of the family had to identify a charity, research it, and make the case for why it deserved support. After each presentation, the entire family would vote.
A three-quarters tally was necessary. Almost always, each suggestion was approved unanimously. The council worked so well that it operates to this day, 25 years after rich uncle’s death.
Not only does money get sent where it’s needed, I said. Not only does the council method prevent family bitterness. It engages the younger members. They can honestly say that their desires are heard at age 22, just as loudly as the desires of Grandpa at 84.
After I finished laying out this idea, I looked around the table. One head was nodding. Then another. Then, soon, all four.
“Nice idea,” said the older sister. “I’ll remember that.”
So should we all.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.