By Dee Dee Sung
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Family ties that bind
Q: My mom just passed away. Her will was not clear and left a lot of the distribution of her possessions up to us, her children. We are fighting like crazy about who gets what. Any suggestions to calm everyone down so we can deal with the will in a clear, intelligent, fair way?
A: My condolences upon the passing of your mother. A loss of a parent can be such an emotional experience. Many people that contact me have gone through a similar experience or are dealing with aging parents and having to tend to matters such as making sure their parents’ finances are in order and that there is a clear plan for the disposition of their assets. In your case, your mother has passed and you and your siblings now have to take care of matters without her present to give direction.
The problem is that people often don’t want to think about death and consequently don’t assume the responsibility of preparing a will in advance. In your case, there is a will, however, one that’s lacking clarity. When that is the case, the heirs or beneficiaries to the estate are left to sift and sort at a time when emotions are running high. There can be so many emotions involved – sadness, anger, greed, resentment, regret – to name a few, and the “best” seems to come out in all parties involved. Add money and possessions to the mix and you’ve got the ingredients for familial disaster!
I want to share with you the experience of a family that I worked with who were in a similar situation. I trust that you will find guidance through their story. Their mother had transitioned into advanced Alzheimer’s and, mind you, had not passed but her disease was so advanced that she was unable to communicate on any level. After she had been moved to a long term care facility, her children were left to sell her house, divide her possessions among them and dispose of the rest. The siblings had very different agendas and could not find a common ground. There was much discord and animosity between them. Jealousy was running at an all time high, and the eldest child was trying to manipulate the others, which only made matters worse. In addition, he was now making allegations that their mother was never accepting of one child’s “gay lifestyle” and was adamant that her partner never receive any of her belongings. This didn’t appear to be the same perception of the other siblings. Consequently, nothing was getting done and the fighting between them was escalating. Eventually, the three siblings recognized the manipulation that was taking place and decided to band together. From there, they decided what steps needed to be taken to complete this painful matter and set about doing so. They divided up the duties and each person was now responsible for getting their respective job done. Above all, the three of them maintained open communication and expressed their concerns throughout. The controlling sibling was essentially left out as it was clear that he was a part of the problem and unwilling to be part of the solution. It was a very difficult and taxing experience for them and they learned much about themselves as well as their siblings. In fact, more so than they had through their years of growing up together. They shared with me that there was a tremendous sense of freedom that came as a result of rising to the occasion and dealing with matters proactively, rather than going around in circles and avoiding confrontation.
My advice to you is that there must be one child who takes the lead. Usually, there is one sibling who’s on “neutral” territory. If that’s not possible, it would be advisable to appoint a third party mediator who’ll work with your family to create resolution.
When you gather, state up front that this session is about working to resolution and not a time to air grievances. From there, allow each sibling to speak their mind as each person has something to say. Everyone else is to do nothing but listen without interjection or interruption. When people are afforded the opportunity to be heard without interruption, it’s amazing how that can change the dynamics of an adverse situation, especially when money and belongings are involved. Once your mother’s directives have been adhered to, be clear on what is left to disburse and from there, allow each child to select an item that would hold great meaning for them. Keep going in this manner until all selections have been made. With the remaining items, come to mutual agreement as to a charity or organization that would benefit from these items and make arrangements to have them picked up. If there are items to be sold, decide who will handle that and agree upon the appropriate split of the proceeds. If you follow this path, the job will get done. It certainly will have its ups and downs, however anything is better than fighting and going nowhere!
As in the case of the family that I spoke of, once you and your siblings have completed the division of your mother’s possessions, you will need some “breathing room” and time to heal. Eventually you will be able to determine which relationships you want to strengthen and repair and which ones you want to let go of for the time being. For now, take a deep breath, step into the task at hand with courage and a knowing that what you learn from this experience will deepen your sense of self worth – something money and possessions cannot do.
Metro Detroit speaker, author and syndicated radio personality Dee Dee Sung is the founder and creative director of The Debt Free Diva with a mission to educate, entertain and inspire people in reinventing their relationship to money. To learn more, visit www.debtfreediva.com.