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Psychological Considerations in Writing a Will

Estate planning can be an intense emotional experience.

Key points

  • For a couple, estate planning requires agreement about emotional topics.
  • Estate planning is more complicated for blended families.
  • The unequal distribution of assets can cause anger and conflict among children or between surviving spouses and children.

Have you decided it’s time to have a will? You may be surprised at the intense feelings you and your spouse experience in the process of estate planning. If you have grown children, for example, how will you distribute your assets to them? The estate planning process can bring up feelings about your spouse and grown children that had not surfaced before.

Roberta Satow
Source: Roberta Satow

Unequal Distributions

The question of unequal distributions frequently emerges when there is a disparity in the financial situation of adult children.

Many years ago, I heard a story about an elderly married couple, Ellen and Tom. They died in a freak accident, and their will added untold misery to a family already in shock. I remember the story because Ellen and Tom were psychotherapists and had two grown sons like me.

One of their sons was a successful businessman, and the other was a teacher. They left the entirety of their assets to the teacher in their will because they thought the wealthy son did not need their money. They thought they were making a rational decision based on the needs of their children. But the teacher felt guilt toward his brother for the disparity. He was angry at his parents for seeing him as a failure who needed their money to support his family.

The wealthy son, Jim, felt furious at his brother and his parents. He had long felt his parents spoiled his brother; Jim felt his parents rewarded his brother for his lack of interest in making more money. The parents’ decision created a permanent fissure in the relationship between their sons.

The parents left a legacy of anger, guilt, and resentment. Despite being psychotherapists, Ellen and Tom ignored the emotional meaning of money. They disregarded the historical relationship between their sons and the impact that the disparity in inheritance would have on each of them.

The issue of unequal distribution also emerges when one adult child has a family, and the other does not.

Should the division of wealth be based on the number of grandchildren? Sal and Barbara are deciding whether to leave their unmarried daughter half of their wealth and give the other half to their married daughter, who has three children. The unmarried daughter feels she should get half of her parents’ assets, while the daughter with children feels the distribution should be based on need.

The Complexity of Blended Families

Bob and Marilyn married in their fifties, and each had children. Bob had two daughters, and Marilyn had one son. In planning their estate, they had to decide whether their money should be separated, split evenly, or split unevenly. Should her daughter get the money she had saved and/or inherited, and his children get the money he saved and/or inherited? Should her daughter get 50 percent of their joint assets while his two children share the remaining 50 percent? Or should each of the three children get one-third of the total?

At the time of their marriage, their ages complicate Bob and Marilyn’s situation. If they married in their thirties and each had children, they might be more likely to combine their assets and accrue them for many years. If they married in their sixties or later, they may have kept their assets separate from the beginning. But they married in their fifties, and each was likely to accrue assets before dying.

Another consideration is the balance or imbalance of assets brought into the marriage. Karen and Bill married in their forties, and each had children from a prior marriage. But Bill had a large trust. From the beginning of their relationship, he made it clear that he would use the trust money to support their lifestyle, but it would pass on to his children when he died.

Similarly, Phil and Patty had a similar agreement. Phil had a family business that he would pass on to his children, although he and Patty would spend the income from the business to support their lifestyle during his lifetime.

Estate planning can be emotionally as well as financially complicated. However, thinking through the emotional implications of your financial decisions can lessen the chances of leaving a legacy of pain and conflict for your partner, spouse, and children. Talking about it with them will make you aware of the multiple feelings attached to what may seem like a “rational” decision.

More from Roberta Satow Ph.D.
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