by Rabbi Wendy Spears
There is the old adage everyone has heard: “You can’t take it with you.” This means, of course, that when we die and make our journey to Olam HaBa (the next world or afterlife), our leftover possessions and money stays in this world for our descendants, friends, or charities. In my 22 years as a rabbi, I’ve never seen a U-Haul truck following after the funeral coach.
Money left in a will is often perceived as an indication of love. For example, if my parents love my brother and me equally, their assets will be divided between us equally. The expectation in families is that if there are assets from the deceased person, those assets will be distributed equitably among the surviving family members who were all loved equally well. When this is not the case, the mourning for the deceased person is interrupted and relationships amongst the family are usually damaged, sometimes beyond repair.
Unfortunately over the past few years, I’ve seen many love relationships damaged by the insensitive handling of money matters, especially when dealing with inheritances that are inequitable. More times than I’d like to remember, money often takes precedence over relationships.
When parents make an inequitable distribution of their estate, it sends a message beyond the grave that they valued one child over another. The hurt that leaves behind cannot be easily healed. The person who took that action is gone from this world. The child might be able to forgive, but oftentimes they can’t. A second aspect involves the surviving family members, and the hurt that has been injected amongst them. The survivors didn’t cause the mess, but they are left to clean it up. The questions remain: do they clean it up and how do they do it? In my own family, I actually have a happy memory about how an inheritance was made equitable.
When my maternal great-grandparents Izzy and Toby were ready to retire, they sold their bakery business in New York and moved to California to be closer to Georgie and Larry, two of their three sons. Their eldest son, my grandfather Georgie, died 15 years later, predeceasing them by four years. When that happened, my grandmother Ruthie, their daughter-in-law, assumed caring for Izzy and Toby – visiting, preparing meals, looking after their accounts, accompanying them to medical appointments – as Georgie would have wanted. She was the best and most loving daughter Izzy and Toby could ever have wished for. She was present in their lives in meaningful ways, even while their youngest son Larry was not, although he lived in a nearby city. Izzy and Toby used to brag to their friends about how great Ruthie was to take such good care of them.
Unbeknownst to Ruthie or her two brothers-in-law Lenny and Larry, their parents changed their will and estate plan after Georgie’s death in favor of their surviving sons so that Lenny and Larry would divide Izzy’s and Toby’s estate equally between the two of them. This served to disinherit Georgie’s family from the estate. When the will was read, Ruthie was understandably shocked and hurt.
Fortunately for her, Lenny loved and respected Ruthie enough to convince Larry that what Izzy and Toby had done was wrong. After a bit of haggling, the brothers agreed that the estate should be divided in three equal portions rather than two so that my grandmother Ruthie received her husband Georgie’s portion.
Saying, “this was grandma’s wish,” when a “favored child” has the power to correct things is a telling moment. This can divide families for generations, or it can be a powerfully positive story of real family values – family unity is more important than money. “I won’t let grandma drive us apart. She did something wrong, but I have the power to correct it.”
Money is a powerful symbol of love and regard. It is ultimately the responsibility of the person who has inherited the largest share of the estate to protect his/her relationship with other members of the family by making the inheritance equitable. The responsibility to living family members and caring for those ongoing relationships must be held more dear than the extra share of an inheritance. Whether it was the wish of the deceased or not, love and care for one another needs to come before money. If the money becomes more important than the love, the relationships are often damaged for years, if not forever.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com or like her page on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.