Dear Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin,
This question pertains to executing my recently deceased mother’s will. FYI, she was larger than life, the most humble person I have ever known, calm in any crisis and lived to 91 years old. One of my sisters and I are the executors. I have four living sisters as well as my deceased sister’s grown children to consider. When my mom sold her house four years ago she deposited the proceeds ($115,000.00) into a credit union account that was managed by a different sister. Mom moved into a senior apartment and this sister eventually took over all of mom’s finances when mom started to lose some cognitive abilities a couple years ago.
Long story short is my co-executor and I firmly believe there should be considerably more money in the account, upwards of $20K, as mom had monthly income that covered most of her rent. My question is this, should we do forensic accounting to look to see exactly what happened or just drop it completely. I think of the proverb, kings will seek out a matter but God would conceal it. If it were true I do not wish to see the blood drain from my sisters face. I and my co-executor do not need the money, but others do including sisters and nephews. It is difficult to see a good outcome if we research the matter. If nothing is amiss we will have guilt for accusing falsely and if it’s true then there will be bad blood even if money is recouped. I’m hoping you have another way to see this.
My Deepest Respect,
Is it any wonder that inheritance conflicts appear early in the book of Genesis and continue through the book of Kings? (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, the children of King David among others) Whether we are talking about inheriting a blessing, a royal succession, or if there is strife over objects and money, anger and enmity too frequently follow the death of a parent.
The most important reason that we chose this question of yours to answer in our ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column is to try and help other families in the future. Ideally, a sibling who either bears the bulk of the physical care for a parent or who monitors finances should be financially compensated. Specifically as it relates to finances, it is a time-consuming job to keep track of expenditures and document money transactions. The person doing so should receive a salary so that the effort taken to keep an accounting record is compensated. That way, the financial care-taker can—and should be expected to—diligently keep all siblings aware of all that is happening.
However, hindsight is 20-20. You accurately note that you and your co-executor are in a lose/lose situation. Even approaching your sister in a non-confrontational way basically says that you doubt her honesty. Not approaching her leaves the two of you, and possibly your other siblings as well, potentially feeling resentful and mistrusting. It looks as if this is a minimize-your-losses situation. We agree with you when you say, “It is difficult to see a good outcome if we research the matter. If nothing is amiss we will have guilt for accusing falsely and if it’s true then there will be bad blood even if money is recouped.”
In our experience, we have sometimes seen the uncompensated, care-taking sibling tell himself that he is entitled to cover some of his own expenses incurred in taking care of mom or dad’s finances. That is actually a valid point but needs to be discussed openly. At worst, one thing leads to another. In this kind of situation, accusation and perhaps even confirmation usually lead to the recovery of exactly zero. And relationships have been irretrievably ruined.
Your challenge becomes how to manage your own emotions to allow you to walk away with no resentment and to help your co-executor come to feel the same way. It might help if you consider your own culpability in allowing this awkwardness to go on for the past couple of years. We understand that you felt grateful and relieved that one sibling was taking care of it all, but you neglected to set things up in a businesslike fashion. Thus you could see the present situation as almost just recompense for your negligence. Thinking about this might make it easier for you to say, “Lesson learned, and even though I might be paying a high tuition cost, I won’t do it again.” This way you allow family relationships to survive. You might even decide along with another more affluent sibling or two, to help out those who might have been depending upon a slightly larger legacy.
Over a period of four years, $20,000 seems to be just over $400 a month. Are you aware of all the expenses excluding housing? Can the two of you imagine a scenario that accounts for that money? The more you can explain the missing money in your own mind, whether or not it is a correct explanation, the more peace of mind you will have. Here are three that we can concoct. Perhaps your mother, in her healthier days, made monthly charity contributions and your sister continued her wishes? Could there have been expenditures for special mattresses and other items that made your mother’s last years more comfortable? Were there any legal or medical fees of which you might be unaware?
You and your siblings seem to have been blessed by a special and wonderful mother. Surely, the last thing she wishes as she observes you from Heaven is to see your family quarrel and separate. As much as some of your sisters and nieces and nephews might benefit from extra money, having a harmonious and loving family is even more important.
We should add that if truly life-transforming sums of money were involved, our answer might possibly (and only possibly) be different, but honestly, the numbers as we understand them are not life-changing. Were you to rip the family apart over them, at the end of the day you’d probably tell yourself how willingly you would have forfeited those few thousand dollars not to have endured the family breakup.
Your question doesn’t even touch on emotional issues such as dividing up treasured belongings. All parents should make as clear as possible how they want their estates handled. Surely, for all of us, our wish to leave behind a strong and united family that projects our values into the future is far more important than any physical object or bank account.
We are sorry for your loss and hope your family shares many joyous occasions.
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
The inheritance conflict between
Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau
continues to this day.
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14 thoughts on “Inheritance Conflict”
From where does the notion come, that suggests there are dead people watching us? How exactly could they do that. What all are the dead suppose to be able to see? That would be a terrible “Heaven” being able to see the hell on earth even after your dead. I know of Sheol being the destination of the dead but I only recall that being referred to in a downwardly direction. From where does the idea of the dead looking down from above come?
I grew up about twenty miles away from my paternal grandparents. My father had two sisters, who had both married and moved out of state before I was born, only visiting on major holidays. My father, for years after my grandfather died, was always the loyal and responsible son, visiting his mother weekly, helping her in whatever way she needed. My parents and I often went there for Sunday dinners. When my grandmother faced a brief, final illness, suddenly, only then, my two aunts swooped into town and told my father that they would stay with my grandmother and take care of her. My father, at the time, was grateful for the help, even if it was belated. Somehow, however, during that time my aunts persuaded my grandmother to change her will, never telling my father, so that they would inherit nearly everything (which was considerable), leaving my father only a bit of personal property. My father, trusting to a fault, didn’t discover any of this until it was too late, after my grandmother had died. He was even manipulated out of most of the few items of personal property: “Oh, but Bob, Mother always wanted me to have that!” He couldn’t bring himself to fight them much, although he was angry and heartsick. He could have taken them to court, and have a good case, too, but he didn’t. He told me he was not going to let himself be brought down to their level. But he knew he had been betrayed by his own sisters. He never spoke to them again, as long as they lived. He outlived them both too, although he was the eldest of the three.
Trust is important when handling the affairs of others With multiple parties. If there is no trust the long run will not turn out well. If you are charged with a duty it is better to have clarity on what is happening and execute your duty faithfully than to find out things are falling apart too late. If this were a stranger managing her mother’s affairs the answer should be the same.
NS, I love the word you used – clarity. So often, these situations evolve and it is important to take the time for all parties to sit down and discuss details.
I am not a lawyer but it seems to me that an executor’s job is to handle what is left not what may have transpired before their mother’s death. If that were not the case then I guess I could say she should have gotten $150K for her house. Again, I am not a legal expert.
Jim, we will stick with the emotional and relationship aspect and leave the legal aspect to the family. Thanks.
Both the question and answer are intelligent and very compassionate. I particularly appreciated your insight about leaving behind a strong and united family that projects ones values well into the future as far more important any amount of financial benefit. Amen! The only possible reason they could have to review this is out of legal obligation but even in that you would need to weigh the accounting/legal costs against any possible gain. I wish this family all the best as they move forward without their matriarch.
Janice, we would have to say that conflict over an estate and/or inheritance probably happens more often than anyone would imagine. It’s a perfect storm of emotions and money.
Both the question and the answer strike me as incredibly intelligent. The answer was full of wisdom. Thank you.
Charles, we were also struck by the awareness of the difficulties that the letter writer showed.
Very wise, Rabbi and Susan! I totally agree with ya’ll. Isn’t it a terrible thing how money can tear up a family after a family member dies. I’ve seen it time and time again in my lifetime. What a shame.
We have seen it way too often as well, Bonnie.
As an attorney, it occurs to me that the executors might have a legal duty to the estate to do the forensic accounting. They may choose not to reveal the results of that accounting to the rest of the family; however, they also might have a legal duty to attempt to recoup the funds if they find out that the money was inappropriately spent.
Ah, Danielle. You are correct that we did not consider any legal obligations. We were only speaking of the relationship.
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