Many Americans will inherit some level of wealth from their parents’ estate. While this event should come as a source of comfort, for some people it is a mixed blessing. I counsel clients who are dealing with feelings of guilt and anxiety about their inheritance.
The challenge seems to be that they know how much it cost their parents to provide the inheritance. They know their parents sacrificed a lot to be able to give them the money. This produces a deep sense of obligation to be wise with the money and even to make it stand for something, to honor their parents.
After working closely with numerous clients who are facing this situation, I’ve learned a number of lessons that I’d like to share with you. If you want your family inheritance to be a source of joy, comfort and protection from life’s uncertainties, here are five guiding principles to consider.
A TIME TO REFLECT
The past several weeks has included the first anniversary of my mother’s death and the 18th anniversary of my father’s passing. Reflecting on their lives has brought me an even deeper appreciation for the legacies they left – as individuals, as a couple and as my parents. The most meaningful aspects of their legacy were their values and unique character traits.
For the last 25 years of her career, my mother educated young women in mathematics. She graded AP Calculus exams and meticulously prepared handwritten education packets for each section of geometry and calculus for her students. The older she got the more she enjoyed the mentoring aspects of the homeroom teacher role in particular. She was proud of her Masters in Mathematics from Washington University and of her career. She valued excellence and high standards in whatever she did and appreciated it in others.
My father was a computer programmer who met my mother as a mathematics major in undergraduate school. Their dates were spent discussing elegant calculus proofs. He was logical, philosophical and had a beautiful active appreciation of the small joys of life. He made it a conscious habit to be interested in varied topics. He was devoted to family – both our small family of 3 and his large family of origin. Often consulted for his unique analytical peacemaking skills, he was beloved by many.
While they were still living, I didn’t realize the extent to which that inheritance had already been deposited. I often ask my clients what values they want to articulate to their beneficiaries. But recently I’ve realized the rich inheritance I received was inside me long before they passed.
Now I find I can still consult them for perspective and advice – just by asking myself what I think they would tell me – or what I think they would do in similar circumstances. Sometimes I make the decision as one of them would have – and other decisions are modified by my own life experience. Either way, I have realized this is my part in implementing their respective legacies.
Together they didn’t ever make it to the top income brackets – but they made a beautiful home and lived a lifestyle comfortable on their combined income. They were always generous with me and provided for my undergraduate education at great sacrifice to their own comforts at the time.
They managed to save a little of each paycheck such that their untimely early deaths (at ages 54 and 69) meant that there was a modest monetary inheritance. Suddenly I had a first-hand experience of the guilt my clients expressed when inheriting money from parents. Let me briefly describe who I see grappling with this issue and why it seems to trouble them.
A COMMON SCENARIO
The people that I see struggling with anxiety and even feelings of guilt about their inheritance seem to fit a certain profile. They are often in their late 40s, 50s or early 60s. They have a family of their own with numerous obligations which they take seriously.
They are hard-working and have learned to practice discipline. They often live within or beneath their means and do their best to save for the future. But, in all honesty, it has been hard for them to build up a significant nest egg.
Usually this is because they are trying to balance so many things and there isn’t enough to go around. They want to provide a comfortable home life for their family. They want to provide a good education for their children, which is very expensive. They want to save for the future and invest wisely.
This has left them with no illusions about how hard it is to provide in the present while also investing for the future. They sometimes ask themselves – “how did mom and dad do it?” And this is where the guilt comes in.
They know that for their parents to have provided an inheritance, mom and dad gave up a lot. They went without: fancy cars, dream vacations every year and life’s luxuries. Mom and dad’s inheritance money represents sacrifice and that attaches a special significance to the money.
These people would never be frivolous in the first place, but they struggle with figuring out how to use the inheritance money. While there are many things they know their family needs and many things they’d like to spend the money on, they are hesitant.
If this were their own money which they had worked hard to earn, they’d have no problem using it. But because it’s mom and dad’s money, it means so much more. If this sounds like you or someone you care about, here are some ideas to help.
FIVE GUIDING PRINCIPLES TO HELP YOU GET THE MOST FROM YOUR INHERITANCE
The lessons I’m about to share with you come from numerous conversations with clients who have received an inheritance and are struggling with how to use it. After reflecting on these conversations and on my own experiences, I have identified five guiding principles:
- Don’t feel guilty.
- Reflect on your parents’ values.
- If possible, use the money in a way that consciously honors their legacy.
- Follow their example and leave a legacy for your loved ones.
- Make your plan in close counsel with someone who understands you.
DON’T FEEL GUILTY
Guilt usually comes when people feel as if they didn’t earn something or that they don’t deserve it. Guilt holds people back and prevents them from taking bold action. If you can get past guilt, you’ll make good decisions with your inheritance money. These decisions will help you realize your parent’s dreams - why they gave you the inheritance in the first place. Let me explain.
You really can’t earn the love of a parent. It just exists. Their love for you was probably evident from the moment you were born and entered their lives. If your family is like most, there may be pictures from your childhood that you treasure. Some of these may be pictures of when you were just a baby, possibly cradled in your mother or father’s arms.
When I see these types of photos, I cannot help but think of the bond between a parent and child. That bond never really goes away, even if things become complicated in the relationship. A bond cannot be earned and may not be deserved. But bonds are the most powerful connections between human beings and they shape behavior in ways that we can’t always explain or even understand.
The risk you face, if you do nothing with the money or don’t make a good plan for it, is that you’ll foil your parents’ dreams for you and your loved ones. This means that their hard work and sacrifice could be at-risk. Guilt may prevent you from honoring their legacy. When you think about it this way, using your inheritance money wisely is the best way to make your parent’s dreams come true.
So I ask you - what steps are you taking to move past guilt so you can use your inheritance in the most effective way possible?
REFLECT ON YOUR PARENTS’ VALUES
One key to using your inheritance money in a way that gives you peace of mind is to consider how your choices align, or do not align, with your parents’ values. This does not mean that you should simply do with the inheritance money exactly what your parents would have done.
But if you are going to use your inheritance in ways that differ from your parents’ values, this should be a conscious choice on your part. Before you make any decisions, however, I recommend that you think carefully about what your parents valued. To do this, you’ll likely need to spend some time reflecting on how they used money.
When I counsel clients who are trying to build a plan for their inheritance money, I like to ask them these types of questions about their parents:
- What did they believe in?
- What did they devote their life to?
- What causes did they support?
- What was important to them?
- What were family vacations like, if you took them?
- How did they value education? Was it a certain type of school or religious institution?
- How did they demonstrate their values by choices they made when they were alive?
I was speaking with a mother the other day who was struggling to define her own financial values in a concise way. She asked her teenage daughter what she thought and the teen’s answer was insightful. She said: “quality over quantity – you know like not buying a bunch of cheap clothes from the mall that will break down in a couple of months.”
So I ask you – what did your parents value and how do those values align, or not align, with what you value?
IF POSSIBLE, USE THE INHERITANCE IN A WAY THAT CONSCIOUSLY HONORS THEIR LEGACY
This is another guiding principle that I have discovered helps people feel good about using their inheritance. If your parents worked hard to provide a financial legacy for you, you will probably only feel good about using it on things you need versus things you want. This is an important distinction. Let me provide an example.
My mother believed in the basics: have a good car, have good work-clothes and have a decent roof over your head. These were her values. She also believed that it was responsible to only buy a new car every ten years. I’m not entirely sure why she came to believe this, but that was her principle.
After she passed, I came into a small amount of money, enough to buy a car. As my car was getting older, her voice popped into my head – “you buy a new car every ten years.” So guess what I did? I bought a new car and I very much appreciated having it. In Chicago, a car is a basic necessity unless you live right downtown.
But your experience will likely be different, based on the legacy your parents left you. This is why I recommend that you get clarity about what your parents valued. For example, when speaking with people coming into an inheritance, their list of things they believe they need can include:
- Paying down a mortgage.
- Buying investment real estate.
- Paying for college for children or grandchildren.
- Buying a new car.
- Paying off debt.
- Allocating a portion for investments to support their retirement.
So I ask you – how can you use your inheritance to honor your parents’ legacy?
FOLLOW THEIR EXAMPLE AND LEAVE A LEGACY FOR YOUR LOVED ONES
Eventually you will likely use your inheritance money. When you do, you’ll almost certainly feel a sense of gratitude toward your parents. This feeling is part of their legacy, how they’ve impacted you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could do the same for your loved ones?
Here is something I’ve learned from working with numerous families and watching how they interact and make decisions with money. Parents will help their children, even to their own detriment, for as long as they live. Parents will sacrifice their own retirement security, life’s luxuries and even their own peace of mind to ensure their children have everything they need.
But once a parent passes on, their ability to continue helping a child will cease… Unless they leave an inheritance. One of the best ways you can use your inheritance is to create a long-term plan to grow the wealth so that it becomes something you can leave behind. Not everyone will be able to do this and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you need to use the money, like I did, for basic necessities.
So I ask you – can you use all, or even a portion, of your inheritance to create a financial legacy for your loved ones?
MAKE YOUR PLAN IN CLOSE COUNSEL WITH SOMEONE WHO UNDERSTANDS YOU
When people come into an inheritance, they often feel overwhelmed. It’s very helpful to have a listening ear, someone you can trust with the details both of the money and of your mindset, to help you create the best possible strategy.
I serve as a sounding board and listening ear to my clients who are struggling with many of the issues I’ve described here. Together, and over time, we make plans that my clients believe in and that they feel good about. We spend time reflecting on their family and what their parents’ legacy means to them.
But we also dig into the details of the financial side of things and look at as many options as possible. This gives my clients peace of mind that they are being wise with their inheritance and honoring the memory and sacrifices of their parents.
So I ask you – who do you trust with the details of your family history? Who in your life has the listening skills and the technical skills to help you make sound financial decisions?
An inheritance should be a source of blessing. It should protect loved ones from the financial uncertainties that life brings all of us. I believe an inheritance can be the final expression of the intimate bond that exists between parents and children. It can also create a multi-generational legacy. If you would like to develop a plan that give you real peace of mind for your inheritance, let’s have a conversation.
© 2018 Whitnell & Co. The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only.