My sister is the executor of my parents’ estate. When my dad died last May, the estate went to my mom who is living with my sister. Recently, my sister helped my mom re-write her will. The new will leaves all of the acreage of my parents’ property and sole decision-making authority for distribution of all other assets to my sister. When I talked to my sister about our parents’ estate she said she believes no one in the family deserves another dime. I think it is wrong to have such a partial fiduciary for the estate and would like to discuss this with my mother. How should I do that?
A Way for the Will
Dear Way for the Will,
Please hang with me for the next few paragraphs. It might be hard here at the start.
One look at your question leaves me worrying that your sister is setting herself up for big problems—either perceived or real. Either she may play an inappropriate role in the division of the estate, or she may unwittingly act in ways that make it likely you and others will feel that way.
But after a second pass, there are small suggestions that this is a more complicated story with multiple strong and valid concerns. For example, in the facts:
• Since your father died, your sister has had primary responsibility for the care of your mother.
• Your question raises only issues about estate division and not about shared responsibility.
See why I asked you to hang with me? Please don’t take offense. Of course I know nothing—I am only inferring. I believe my primary value to you is not in perfectly understanding the situation but in offering alternative ways of approaching it. These are easier for me to offer due to my detachment and naiveté. So, here goes.
• Focus on what you really want. These situations bring up all of the old victim, villain, and helpless stories of your youth. Perceived inequities, rivalries, and disappointments of yesteryear can be triggered in an instant with the smallest cue. Be very attentive to your own motives—pay attention when you get caught up in winning, being right, avoiding conflict, or punishing. Think deeply about what you really want—for yourself, for others and for the relationships in years ahead. Commit these desires to writing so you can keep them front and center in your mind. I don’t know what is fair or right—but I can assure you that the biggest influence on your future happiness will not be the outcome of estate. Rather it will be your emotions about the estate. And the best way to manage your emotions is to monitor your motives.
• Talk about responsibilities first, assets second. Be sure to think about all of the family issues. Discuss them systemically because they are all connected. For example, don’t raise issues about who gets the farm without validating its connection to who has worked the farm. If your energy is all about asset distribution, this should give you pause to reexamine your motives. If your motives are right, the estate will be an element of your conversation not the soul of it.
• Empathize deeply. Before opening up conversations with mom, sister, or other siblings I recommend you take yourself through a powerful empathy exercise. On various sheets of paper, write the names of each family member who has a stake in these issues. Then, one at a time, become that person. Underneath each person’s name write out their concerns, feelings, needs, opinions—as best you can guess them. Make sure you do this from his or her perspective. You will know you have succeeded in empathizing when you feel a reverence and respect for his or her view while writing it. It will feel reasonable. If the writing exercise provokes resentment or resistance in your mind, keep at it. You’ll get there! The purpose of this process is not to cause you to surrender your own interests or needs. Those are important. It is to simply create space to consider the needs and interests of others.
• Practice rigorous transparency. Now you’re ready to talk. But by no means should you talk exclusively with your mother. The estate is your mother’s so she is the ultimate decision-maker. But because she may be open to influence from others, be sure to avoid creating rivalries by holding closed conversations. Encourage your mother to be inclusive, if that seems appropriate to her. Let all family members know your broader motives. If someone becomes contentious—validate their concerns. Listen deeply. Empathize. Unilaterally commit to getting a fair hearing for everyone. With all this said, I know there are times when feelings are so deep-seated or motives become so clouded that the future could still be painful. But I am confident that if you keep your own priorities right, and approach these conversations with compassion and understanding, you will reach as good an outcome as is possible.