Q: I have two siblings. My parents help out my sister a lot. My brother and I are doing ok financially. My parents plan to leave money equally to all three of us. I don’t think that’s fair. How can I say something without looking greedy? – John, Portland, Maine
A: If your parents are already giving your sister significant financial help, receiving equal amounts of money in their will may seem unfair. But that’s how most people do it, says lawyer Ann-Margaret Carrozza of MyElderLawAttorney.com.
The odds are small that the kids in any family will end up with identical financial outcomes, and those differences may not be easy to address in a will, which is a final document of your parents' wishes for their family. "Most parents have a strong desire to treat their children equally," says Carrozza.
Still, it makes sense ask your parents about their intentions. How do they view the financial help they've provided your sister? If they think of the money as a gift, then that’s the end of the conversation. If your parents consider it a loan that will be paid back, suggest that they formalize the arrangement with a promissory note and keep that document with their estate papers. Either way, find out what your parents' goals are for their legacy, and get it in writing so there’s no confusion.
By having the conversation with your parents now, you can head off possible conflicts down the road. “When there’s an unequal distribution of assets in the will, the chances that the heirs not treated favorably will contest the will go up dramatically,” says Carrozza. That's something to be avoided, given the high emotional and financial cost of a legal battle.
Consider yourself fortunate if you do get something from parents. Only half of American retirees are planning to give an inheritance to their children, according to a recent HSBC survey. (Those that did leave a bequest gave an average $177,000.) And a US Trust survey found that two out of three of affluent parents viewed spending on travel or personal experiences as more important than leaving a financial inheritance to their family.
“At the end of the day, what parents do with their money is up to them,” says Carrozza.