Carolyn Hax: Should parents’ will compensate for one kid’s extra cost?


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Dear Carolyn: We have two children. Our daughter and her husband have been levelheaded in managing their budget. Her husband has a good job and is the main breadwinner. In the past, our son has had difficulties and we have spent a great deal of money helping him. He is now settled down, is in a stable marriage, and has a good job.

Our current will divide our money 50-50. Our daughter recently commented that she should get a larger percentage of our money because our son has cost us so much in the past. But her husband’s parents are comfortable financially, own property, and he is an only child. The parents of our son’s wife are divorced, have no property, have each remarried, and are financially strapped.

Although our son has given us heartache in the past, we are ecstatic that he is doing well. We want to keep our will 50-50 but do not know how to explain this to our daughter without her feeling that she is being punished for her responsible path.

Confused Parents: This sounds like a resentment problem, not a money problem.

Speaking from anecdote, not data: Kids can understand the expression of equal love in unequal forms — as kids even, but especially when grown. They can respect parents’ decisions to distribute resources based on need. They can accept a nuanced definition of fairness. They can also grasp that the child who receives less can feel more fortunate and better equipped — by life, by their parents, whatever — than the child who receives more.

You can scoff at that, sure. Or you can think about why.

Kids can do this when their parents have a consistent, coherent, respectful approach and communicate it to their children, and when they bathe them in equal light. And, to be fair, when the kids themselves are temperamentally capable of hearing and internalizing these messages.

So when I see a request like your daughter’s, I see a request for money as a proxy for those parental intangibles. For whatever reason, she doesn’t feel equally loved, or equally/fairly served by your resource decisions, or just equally seen, heard and appreciated. The logic of your parental allowances didn’t persuade her, so she wants her due in your will.

If that impression is true, then coming back at her with the argument that her in-laws are well-fixed and her brother’s aren’t will only make matters worse. That could change, for one, plus it’s not about the math.

Instead, try to respond by seeing her, hearing her, appreciating her. Maybe: “I’m hearing that you feel shorted by us — probably not so much with money as with our time and attention?”

Then, if she agrees, assuming it’s honest: “You’re right. I am sorry about that.

“I am so proud of what you have done, in being responsible and independent. You did this on your own while our attention was mostly on your brother. Yet instead of noticing that, we took it for granted we could focus elsewhere. I am sorry for not recognizing you needed us, too, and saying earlier and often how proud we are.”

This is not in lieu of rebalancing your will, nor is it the entirety of your response to your daughter. The point is to make up for what I’m guessing is the real deficit, the emotional one. Validate her.

Then, ideally, you can encourage all of you to think, talk and plan bigger. There could be ways to handle your estate more thoughtfully or fairly — and your daughter also could be an insightful resource.

The reason for this part isn’t merely emotional. Isn’t it possible, after all, that she’s more invested than even you are in her brother’s financial security? What if she sees herself as the heir to your role as his safety net, even grudgingly? Even siblings who aren’t close sometimes struggle with the idea of ​​letting one of their own go into economic free fall, especially when they have the means to help — and this can come with real resentment even while the role is just a projected one.

Your son might have valuable thoughts to share, too. He might want to square things more with his sister.

Maybe I’m giving your daughter more credit than she deserves (and you less of it), and she has nothing but money in mind. Maybe your balance with your son is too hard won to risk disrupting over this. Maybe that 50-50 split, no discussion, is genius given the sensitivities involved. In that case, the validation for your daughter would be the end of the conversational line.

But the bigger story is worth thinking about, and talking about with an estate attorney. Is there a way to honor the “responsible” daughter, while also structuring the “difficult” son’s safety net so that she never has to step in on his behalf? Just because it isn’t the thing she complained about doesn’t mean it can’t be the thing you decide to fix.

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