I have six family members (siblings and a niece) I would like to leave part of my husband’s and my estate. My husband has one brother and a sister, both seniors. He has allocated 10% for his brother and 20% for his sister. He has also designated four charities at 10% each. That leaves me with 5% each for my family. Seems unfair. Any advice?
— Drawing the Short Stick
Dear Short Stick,
First, kudos to you and your husband for discussing your will now! Many people have trouble starting this conversation, but it’s important. Getting clear about what should happen with your money and property after you die can save your loved ones years of stress on top of their grief.
Because you and your husband share ownership of the estate, you also have to share in the decisions about how to pass it on. That can make for some difficult conversations, especially if you haven’t been regularly talking about money throughout your relationship. But you won’t land on a satisfying agreement if you’re not able to talk frankly about your money.
The first thing that jumps out to me is that your husband seems to believe he should get to make decisions about a much greater portion of your estate than you. What about your shared history and relationship with money is behind that? I’d start the conversation there: Before you even discuss where the money is going, agree on how the two of you will make those decisions together.
That conversation might bring up some stuff you haven’t faced together before (or maybe it’ll resurface a recurring, unresolved issue). Maybe one of you has typically been the breadwinner of the family; maybe one of you has typically made spending and saving decisions; maybe one or both of you have been unhappy with the way you’ve handled money as a couple. Estate planning is a new frontier, so this is an opportunity to reflect on and renegotiate those long-standing roles.
Second, you’ll determine where the money will go. This is less a conversation about what’s “fair” and more a conversation about what you and your husband value and how you want to use the money you’ll pass on to support those values.
You might decide the only satisfactory route is for you each to divvy up 50% of the estate as you see fit. But a 50-50 split in decision making or between families of origin isn’t your only option. You might instead allocate the inheritance according to the relative need of the recipients, or based on your relationship with each of them, or based on the legacy you want to leave.
Conversations about money — especially within families — are rarely about numbers, so don’t get caught up there.
If you’re feeling uneasy about your husband’s decisions over 70% of your estate, look for the root of that unease and talk to him about that without pinning it on the will. Is there something unresolved in your relationships with each other’s siblings? Do the chosen charities represent a difference of values? Do you fundamentally disagree on the purpose of wealth? Is this a symptom of a larger power dynamic in your relationship?
Look beyond the numbers into these underlying details, and you’ll have a much better chance at coming to an agreement that satisfies both you and your husband.
Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance®, author, speaker and personal finance journalist. She writes Healthy Rich, a newsletter about how capitalism impacts the ways we think, teach and talk about money.