I'm a widow in my late 70s with two grown children--a married daughter with three children of her own, and a son who's been divorced twice and has one son. My will has been drawn so as to give the large majority of my estate to my daughter. I have several reasons for doing so. My daughter is more devoted to me than my son, though he is by no means remiss. More important, her expenses are greater than his. But I have a close friend who tells me that she thinks I shouldn't divide my estate in an unequal manner. Shouldn't I have the right to dispose of my money as I see fit?
If you're talking about the legal right to dispose of your money as you see fit, of course you can. However, there are reasons both commonsensical and moral why it is not usually wise to avail ourselves of all our rights.
If you give your daughter and, through her, her children the large majority of your estate, what conclusion do you think your son and grandson will draw? Probably, they'll assume that you loved your daughter and her children more than you loved them. This was the case with a man I know who was left a somewhat smaller share in his mother's estate than his sister. He took it as yet another indication that he was loved less--and this was a source of great pain to him.
Even in an instance when one child has greater expenses or a lower income than the others, I would still counsel that the fair thing is to divide the estate evenly. Nevertheless, if doing so would truly provoke great financial hardship, the parent owes it to the child who is going to receive a smaller portion an explanation of why the parent is taking this course. Only if the child accepts this division as fair do I believe the parent should go ahead and dispose of his or her assets unequally. Why?
First, as I suggested, the child receiving less will feel less loved. Now, it is quite possible that you do love your daughter more than you love your son. But do you really want to make it so explicitly clear? Many parents feel a preference for one child over another, but they usually try not to make it known. It is immensely damaging to a person's ego to feel that one's own father and mother, the two people whose love should automatically be counted on, did not particularly love him or her.
Second, apart from the financial legacy, think of the emotional legacy you are bequeathing your children. The likelihood that your son will remain close with his sister is slim. He might come to harbor great animosity toward her, thinking that she talked you into leaving her more money. In any case, he is apt to feel jealous. Thus, your act is likely to cause a diminution in family feeling. As a parent, I know how important it is to me that my children grow up to love each other. I would be very loathe to take a step that I felt could cause that love to be diminished or shattered.
A further thought: Would your late husband, who presumably is responsible for at least a part of the estate you are now preparing to bequeath, have approved of what you are doing? Or might he have wanted his son and daughter to inherit equally?
Obviously, there are instances where a child's extremely bad behavior would justify disinheriting him or sharply limiting his share of the estate. But you note that your son has "by no means been remiss." Be careful, then, that you also avoid acting in a manner that is remiss.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.