I am a 28-year-old social worker and single mom with one sibling, a 24-year-old brother who is in his next-to-last year as a medical student. Our dad died a little over two years ago after a long illness, and our mom died suddenly and unexpectedly last month of a heart attack.
My parents wrote up a will many years ago leaving everything to whichever one of them survived (it was mostly all joint property anyway), and then dividing the estate equally between my brother and me. But my brother is objecting to this, saying that my mother had been paying for his med school tuition and living expenses at the time of her death, and that the clear understanding was that my parents would always cover educational expenses for both of us until we finished school. (I have an M.S.W, and have no current plans to return to school, although the thought of a Ph.D. in the nebulous future is very attractive.) He is demanding that the cost of his next two years, until he gets his M.D. and starts his cardiology residency, should come off the top of the estate before it is divided.
My folks were not super-rich, but they were both retired government workers with great pensions (which survived him but both died with her), and they had a nice little house and enough stocks so that, after expenses and state taxes and lawyers and so on, the estate should be about $1,200,000. My brother proposes taking about $200,000 up front. This would mean that, instead of our each getting about $600,000, he would get $800,000 and I would get $400,000.
I consulted a lawyer, who looked at the documents and assured me that Kevin does not have a leg to stand on, legally. But what about morally? He is my orphaned little brother, after all. And Mom was paying for him while she was alive. On the other hand, I never heard her say anything about making any special provisions for Kevin, and I have heard both my parents say that the only fair way is to divide an estate equally between any kids. But perhaps they never believed they would both die before their younger kid got through school?
I do not want to sound greedy, and $400,000 is a lot of money. In fact, it represents almost ten times my current annual salary. What should I do?
—Grieving in Grove City
Kevin may be your orphaned little brother, but in six years or so he will be an orphaned little cardiologist. In the meantime, a paltry $600,000 should be plenty to get him through the next two years of med school and then to supplement whatever he gets paid during his residency and any fellowships. His sudden loss of your mom’s ongoing financial support may be a blow, but I would think that a lump sum of over half a million dollars will cushion the blow somewhat. (By the way, $200,000 sounds awfully steep to me for two years of medical school, even he is in one of the fancier ones, and pays thousands a month for rent and airfare and the like.
On the other hand, an extra $200,000 might mean everything to you and your child. Private school or music and art for her. Putting some money away, but still being able to start buying a house. Maybe even getting that Ph.D. some day.
Kevin seems to be making two arguments here. The first is that he relied on your parents’ oral, or perhaps merely implied, promise. Your lawyer has told you—and I agree—that any promise they made is not legally binding. I do not see why you should feel ethically bound, either. One reason certain promises have to be in writing is that, without written evidence, it is often hard to be sure what the person making the promise intended, or even whether there actually was one. If your mother considered the future at all, she may have thought or felt something like: “I will pay for Kevin as long as I live,” without ever questioning the overall scheme of equal division of her estate. She may even have thought something like “I will support Kevin’s education until I die, and then it can come out of his half.” Your parents had time, during your father’s long illness and your mother’s two years of survivorship, to alter the will. I suppose their failure to do so may have been an oversight, or the result of procrastination. Although I very much doubt it, they may even have assumed that you would fork over the tuition and expenses because of some tacit agreement you had never heard of before.
But it is just as likely—more likely, even—that they had their reasons not to alter their will despite Kevin’s still being in school. I can think of a bunch. (1) Your current income and future prospects are more modest. (2) You already have a child, which is a special current circumstance at least on a par with med school. (3) Any parental duties to pay for post-post secondary education end with death—which, in this case, is when the generous pensions that probably helped pay for this education also end. (4) An ironclad equal-division rule will prevent disputes and resentment. (That last one is actually the reason I would bet on, even though it happens to have been a bust in your case.)
Kevin’s second argument seems to come from a sense of fairness: that, since your parents paid for your entire education, they—via you—should also pay for his, death and the law notwithstanding. But there are other equally fair ways to allocate the largesse of parents, living and dead. One is to pay roughly the same amount towards each child’s education, in which case Kevin was probably already on the debit side by the time of your mother’s death. Another, as I mentioned earlier, is to pay both children’s reasonable education expenses for as long as there is life and income, and then to have the children draw on their legal share of the estate, or their own resources. After all, if you ever want that Ph.D., that is what you will have to do. (Somehow I don’t see Kevin coming across with money for your future schooling, if any, out of a sense of fairness.) And while it’s likely that, had she lived, your mother would have continued to pay for Kevin’s last two years of med school, she might also have eventually helped your daughter out with her schooling, or helped you pay for any number of things, including further graduate study.
I hereby give you ethical clearance to hold onto your inheritance! In fact, I urge you to do so. I wish I could also absolve you in the eyes of your brother, or assure you that the two of you will get past this dispute. Do you have any close relatives, perhaps aunts or uncles, who could mediate for you—not to arrange some sort of financial compromise, but to help Kevin understand your, and the law’s, position? I also suggest that you ask your attorney to get in touch with Kevin and present the situation in as cut and dried, and as dry, a way as possible, explaining that, by the clear terms of the will, half of the money is yours and half is his, as surely as if it had been sitting in your separate accounts since time out of mind. I hope that Kevin can come to see that what he, a future doctor, is doing is asking his struggling single-mom sister for a gift when he has just inherited more than enough money to send him on his way to wealth and success.
If he does not come around, you will have to decide whether his good graces are worth $200,000 of your money, or some part thereof. I do hope that you have wise and persuasive relatives, mutual friends, counselors, and lawyers who can help both of you, and that you emerge with both your inheritance and your sibling relationship intact.
By the way: no matter how the money issue or the relationship shake out, spending a small percentage of your inheritance on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation can be a great restorative. It worked for my family.
Introducing LA WALLY!
Sometimes I read one of your letters aloud to my adult daughter and ask what advice she would give. Her answers tend to be as short and pithy as mine are, well, not so short and pithy. Thinking that you might welcome the contrast, I’ve decided to include her reactions to this week’s letters. We’ll see how it works out—whether you like this feature, whether she clams up once I start publishing her responses, and how well I tolerate being upstaged.
Clearly she needs a nom de June. We considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but she rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons, and thought “Wally” too masculine and generally hideous. She was okay with “La Wally,” though. (Have you all seen the movie Diva? You should.)
La Wally’s response to Grieving in Grove City: He’s going to be a cardiologist and he wants to take money from his sister and his little niece or nephew? What a creep. Keep what’s yours!
La Wally’s boyfriend’s response: Fair is fair. Both get half.
My mom and I live about twenty miles away from each other, in suburbs of the same city. Once or twice a month she will come into the downtown area, where I work, and we’ll have lunch or an early dinner together. It was at one of these dinners that she met my friends Lucas and Billy, a gay couple about my age, who happened to be sitting at the next table. Always gregarious, she invited them over to our table for dessert. The guys contributed some fancy dessert wine and everyone had a fine time.
Everyone except me, that is. My mom means well, and I do not think she has an ounce of hate in her, but she is weird around LGBT people. Not homophobic or anything, just really self-conscious and nervous and all caught up in the person’s being gay. I think that one reason everything went okay when the four of us were having dessert was that Lucas and Billy had just been to a gay bingo extravaganza the previous night, so it didn’t seem all that odd that we talked about sexual orientation and drag queens for more than half the time.
But now my mom has invited them (and me, and a few other people) to a barbecue at her house for some of her famous ribs, and I am afraid of what will happen. She kept asking me to invite Billy and Lucas over and I put her off, but then we ran into them again at the same restaurant at lunchtime and she invited them herself. They seemed surprised but very pleased to be asked. Lucas especially. The other night he came over to my place for a cupcake while Billy was at tennis practice, and he told me that he was touched by my mom’s overtures, and that he really missed his own mom, who died two years ago and had been his best friend.
I would like to warn Billy and Lucas that my mother can be weird and intrusive, but I can’t think of a way to say it without making them feel that I don’t want them to come, or that I think my mother is just being friendly to them because they are gay. Both these things are true, actually. I don’t want them to come because I am afraid she will embarrass them. And I do believe that my mother would never have gone out of her way to invite them over if they weren’t gay—she has never been that single-minded with any of my straight friends. I don’t know whether she has some strange fascination for them, or whether she is bending over to be all liberal, but whatever it is, I don’t like it.
Is there anything I should do?
—Nervous in Narberth
Dear N in N,
The first thing you should do is relax. You may be misjudging your mom: maybe she just really likes Lucas and Billy and wants to build on the great time you all had over wine and dessert. And even if your friends’ being gay is a factor in her interest, that is not necessarily bad—so long as she is hoping for more diverse and interesting acquaintances, not specimens for her personal gallery of curiosities.
But even if her motives are questionable—and even if, left unchecked, your mom is likely to pepper the conversation with awkward, ill-timed questions about matters LGBT, or to tell your friends how much she used to just love Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—you still have time to check her. Find some time to talk, preferably in person, before the barbecue, and gently remind her that being gay is only one aspect of Lucas and Billy and that, to be on the safe side, she should probably leave it to them to bring up anybody’s sexual orientation, or LGBT-related issues generally. Say to her what I said to you: that she should just relax and enjoy the party and the company. Make sure she knows that they’ve already said how much they like her and how happy they are to be invited.
My guess is that she will behave, or that her gaucheries will be so minor that your friends will be more amused than upset. If it looks like she is going to seriously mess up—tell me she doesn’t get drunk at her own parties!—you will be there to make sure nothing really embarrassing happens, at least not more than once.
If you think it would help, there are ways to prepare Billy and Lucas without seeming unwelcoming. Just start by saying how thrilled you are that they agreed to come and how much you are looking forward to the party. Then say that you hope they will be patient with your mom if need be, because she sometimes gets too personal with people, and has very little experience outside her own straight, middle-class [if applicable], white [if applicable], middle-aged [if applicable], etc., cohort.
I am confident that Lucas and Billy can handle your mom—the chances are about 100% that they’ve experienced far worse from other members of the generation that preceded yours. I can see why you would feel protective of Lucas in particular, given his loss of his mom. But there is no reason to assume that he is looking for a substitute mother, or that he can’t handle a few missteps from yours, as long as she really is well-meaning and openhearted.
I suppose there is a slim chance that the barbecue could turn into a disaster. In the highly unlikely event that it does, remind yourself that social disasters are not the end of the world, and that it is worth risking them when there’s a far better chance that they’ll result in enjoyment, new friendships, and a larger view of the world.
Try to have fun! No matter what happens, there will be ribs.
La Wally’s response: The daughter sounds more awkward than her mother. The daughter should definitely let the guys know that her mom really likes them but can sometimes be clueless with gay people. She can also try telling her mom to dial it down, but after that she should just chill.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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