Dear Mrs. Riches:
My husband and I, a couple in our 50s, are in the midst of reviewing our estate planning and are trying to decide on heirs. While we have no children of our own, we do have many nephews and nieces, one of whom we are much closer to than the others. She's the youngest of my brother's four children and we quite frankly dote on her. Our inclination is to leave the bulk of our estate to her, including a house we wish to stay in the family. She loves the house and so we feel sure she will cherish it as we have. But at the same time, we are not heartless people and certainly don't want to cause our other nephews and nieces any hurt feelings and stir up discord in the family. In the interest of fairness, do we divide the estate equally among them? What do we do about the house? Your help is appreciated.
-- No Heir Apparent
Dear No Heir Apparent:
You and your spouse are right to be concerned about how family relationships will be affected by your will. When you start talking inheritance, people (even nice ones) can lose their heads and the resulting fallout can strain family ties indefinitely. However, while this is a consideration, I wouldn't let that be the defining factor in how you allocate your estate. They're your assets, after all, and no one's sense of entitlement or anticipated hurt feelings should take precedence over your wishes. This isn't being selfish (the definition of which always involves a disregard for others' feelings) but rather protecting that which is important to you and, in so doing, passing on a legacy.
It seems as if you have three main priorities: 1) to honor the special relationship with your niece, 2) to keep your house in the family for another generation, and 3) to minimize hurt feelings with other family members. I'm hopeful that you can strike a balance in your effort to accomplish all of these goals with the proper foresight and planning. You'll need to:
- Meet with an attorney to plan your estate, including drafting an ironclad will, as well as a living will.
- Be as open as possible about your intentions. Often feeling "blindsided" by unexpected provisions in a will leads to more ill-will, so to speak. Also, talking with your closest niece will give her a chance to share her feelings with you. For example, are you certain she will want to live in your home should it be bequeathed to her? Or will she feel uncomfortable that her siblings won't inherit as much as she does? At the very least, talking with her will allow her to prepare for any negativity resulting from the inheritance.
- Think about ways you can create a greater sense of fairness, while still honoring your favored niece. Can you leave her the house and its contents, while dividing up some other, more liquid assets between the remaining heirs?
- Consider leaving a letter or video to accompany your will. Include an explanation about what your house means to you and how you have chosen to honor and protect it after your death. Remember that sometimes the angry, hurt feelings that surround an inheritance have more to do with a sense of emotional abandonment than cold, hard cash. Describe a happy memory you have of each nephew and niece, taking care to choose something personal to bequeath each one. Personal recognition and a special memento may help soothe some of the ruffled feelings.
- Be specific about who you'd like to leave family heirlooms to by leaving a detailed inventory.
No matter what you decide to do with your estate, I wish you luck. You're doing the right thing by tackling this issue head-on.
Want more help with your money problems? Give The Motley Fool's personal finance service, GreenLight, a try free for 30 days. It'll get you on the road to financial harmony in no time.
If you're interested in hearing more from Mrs. Riches, try:
Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email .