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Hax: Dad changes mind, meaning siblings get bigger portion of estate

Carolyn Hax
| Sunday, November 23, 2014 4:53 p.m.

Dear Carolyn:

My 88-year-old father recently informed me that he’s decided to change his will. I have four sisters and brothers, and three have taken out loans against their share of any inheritance — significant loans, like in the $75,000 range. Dad has been tracking these loans and has provided in his will a formula for adjusting the split accordingly.

However, he recently decided these loans are to be forgiven and the estate split five equal ways. He decided it was his duty as a father to help his kids in whatever ways they needed help, and keeping track of the loans had gotten to be a burden to him, and he felt forgiving these loans would make it easier for me to settle the estate (I am to be the executor).

Dad hasn’t asked me for input on this decision, so I’ve not offered any. But I’m a little upset by it. The loans were given with the understanding they were advances on these siblings’ inheritances. The money was used for things like bailing out real estate debts in two divorces, paying for rehab and living expenses during years of unemployment, and paying for tuition when one sibling decided to go back to school to get a master’s. I’ve had needs and wants, too, but have managed on my own, and so has my other sibling. All of us are in our 50s and 60s.

Of course, there’s a chance there won’t be much of an estate anyway when the time comes. A lot of things could happen. But I am trying to control my resentment over this and would appreciate advice.

— My Inheritance Probably Just Took a Nosedive

Ouch. You’ve got the right idea, though; the answer is not in lobbying your father, it’s in accepting his decision.

Fortunately there’s plenty to work with toward that end. The more obvious is that your siblings didn’t borrow money for cars and cruises, right? They accepted help to save (addiction, divorce-related debt, unemployment) or improve themselves (tuition).

Because of this, you have a subtler, second reason not just to accept, but even embrace your dad’s decision: These “loans” could easily have been labeled as gifts from a parent serving as a safety net. Had he treated them this way from the beginning, you might well have been grateful for the sense of security they offered — and you also might have worked just as hard to avoid asking for the money as you did when you saw them as loans.

Thought exercise: Had your father stored cash in a safe labeled “Disaster Fund,” would you have requested any when your various “needs and wants” arose? Or would you have treated it as a last resort? Would you have begrudged payouts to siblings at the point of last resort?

Some people do resent any payout to one sibling that isn’t matched for others, but it’s also quite common for adult children to sign on fully to a definition of fairness based not on equal portions, but on equal commitment to meeting needs. I may be reading your tone wrong, but I suspect you fall in the latter camp.

If so, then condense it accordingly: Had he never promised cake, this cookie would look pretty good.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.

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