A Cautionary Tale

A Cautionary Tale

There’s nothing like a family will to get that family wishing they’d never heard of each other, and there’s nothing like money to bring out the worst in everyone. I can attest to both, since it was my mother’s will that caused all the trouble, and the trouble had to do with a house she had bought in the late 1940s.

The year was 1947. Our family home in Westchester had been sold after my father’s early death and the New York apartment my mother had moved to wasn’t keeping her happy in the summer. Since Long Island was familiar, – my family had owned houses in Westhampton and Easthampton – she confined her search to the South Fork and eventually settled on a house in a lovely farming community known as Bridgehampton. Other than the fact that Carl Yastremski, a star of the Boston Red Sox, had grown up there, Bridgehampton was best known for growing potatoes. And because this Hampton lacked the glamour and prestige of its neighbors to the west and east, my mother was able to buy her house completely furnished for $25,000. The price included three acres of land, a barn in the back and enough linen for six beds.

My older sister was married in Bridgehampton, as was I, but because she lived in California and because I was involved with a husband and five children in another part of Long Island with no desire to summer somewhere else, my mother decided to will the Bridgehampton house to my brother. He had spent more summers there than his two older sisters, and loved the area. But the damage this did to the relationships of her three children persists to this very day. By the time my mother died, the Bridgehampton house which had cost next to nothing in 1947, was worth millions. It was the only thing of value in her estate. In another family, a will of this sort could have ended up in a court of law along with thousands in legal fees. But since neither my sister nor I were litigious, we simply walked away. All that remained were the bad feelings.

Did my mother’s will mean that she didn’t love her two daughters? I think she would have been astonished to think that anyone thought so. But it’s hard to understand how she could not have anticipated the damage that ensued. Like a bad divorce, the fallout from an unfair will never entirely goes away. It’s the elephant in the room, the ugly presence that is always there.

In England there has long been a tradition of leaving an estate to the male members of a family. It is a big reason why England is still so beautiful. The oldest son inherits the manor house and the 5000 acres, the younger son goes into the army. The daughters, if there are any, are told to marry money. And if the oldest son can bring a rich American wife into the mix, so much the better.

The world I grew up in treated their sons and daughters equally and the reason my mother didn’t is that she wanted the house to stay in the family. She wanted the house to be her legacy, and she knew my brother couldn’t afford to buy it from the estate. In a family will it is usually the house that is the sticking point, as it is far and away the most valuable possession. But my sister and I both wondered: what kind of a person puts more value on a house than on the family they are leaving behind?

There’s no foolproof way to pass along a house to the next generation, but many have been tried. When one of my son’s friends took over the family house, he had to buy it from the estate. Luckily with the help of two banks and an inheritance from his grandparents, he was able to do that. Giving a house to all the kids (like our friends did in Vermont) comes with its own set of problems. When the bills came due on the Vermont house, which the kids were then supposed to pay, none of the kids wanted to pony up. Eventually, after the parents got a call from the fellow who did the snow plowing, saying he hadn’t been paid in five months, they sold the house.

In contrast to my family, my husband’s family left their Direct Marketing business and the 70 acre family compound that their two sons called home equally to their two sons and daughter, even though the daughter had never worked in the family business, either in the U.S. or Canada, or lived on the family compound. Both her brothers thought this was absolutely fair. We then decided as a family to sell the 70 acres to a developer, who put up 57 houses. It was a relief to all of us to get out from under the tax burden, which had become intolerable.

So what does all this add up to? Your legacy in life has nothing to do with houses. You may love a house, it may store a lifetime of memories, but you have to be willing to let it go. To leave an unequal will is a recipe for disaster. The implication is that some family members don’t count. In addition, in a family with multiple children, you will always have some that are doing better than others. You will be tempted to address that in your will. BUT THAT IS NOT FOR YOU TO DECIDE. My old friend Elizabeth married a very wealthy man. When her parents died, they left everything equally to their three children, but Elizabeth stepped up to the plate and said she didn’t need her share. Her younger brother was very successful, the head of a big American company, her older brother not so much so. Elizabeth asked that her share go to her older brother. It was her money, her decision, hers to give away, not her parents. Everyone felt good about that.

Again, your legacy in life has nothing to do with houses. Your legacy is your family, the people you love and the people who love you. This is how you will be remembered.