Tell Me About It: ‘My cousins point out that I also inherited my parents’ estate, and as my family were significantly wealthier than theirs, it seemed very unfair’
PROBLEM: I grew up in a small family. I had no siblings and only have two cousins, who are also both female. I was always very close to my aunt, who treated me like her daughter. I would visit her every weekend and meet my cousins at her house – when we were children we would play together, and as we got older we would run errands for her. It was one of the most memorable parts of my childhood.
Not alone did I get to spend time with my aunt, who was a little irreverent and allowed me to be bold, but I also got to spend time with my two brilliant and fabulous cousins, who I have always loved like sisters. We have all moved away from home and made our own lives. I have a busy career and my own family now. My cousins were my bridesmaids, and one of them is a godmother to my eldest. I have always maintained regular contact with them and meet as often as possible. My parents have since passed away, and our aunt is now elderly; she has asked me to be her next of kin, and I travel to visit her twice a week and do as much as I can for her.
I was disappointed to hear that my cousins rarely visit her, and never do anything for her. I met up with them recently and confronted them about this. They were both quick to tell me that as I was inheriting our aunt’s house and the remainder of her estate, they did not think that they had any responsibility for her any more. They pointed out that I had also inherited my parents’ estate, and as my family were significantly wealthier than theirs, it seemed very unfair. I was not aware of my aunt’s will, and I would not have chosen this situation. I am financially comfortable, and this inheritance will not change my life in any great way, but it is the preference of my aunt. I love my cousins, and going into the future they are my only family of origin.
I do not want to lose them, but I also think they need to help with our aunt.
ADVICE: Families can face difficult situations when a will is made, and it can create rifts where none existed before. Many people feel that your cousins’ reaction is correct in that the person getting the inheritance should carry the burden of care of the elderly person. However, it is not as simple as that as emotions are involved, and inclusion, or exclusion, in a will can be interpreted as demonstrating the value and position (or lack of it) of those left behind. It seems that your cousins have been aware of the will for some time and so decided to step away from caring, as it appeared they were not considered worthy of inheritance by your aunt – and so feel slighted and rejected by her.
The will is, of course, your aunt’s choice, and she is fully entitled to make whatever choices she wishes with regard to her estate. However, you now have all the information, and you are faced with your own handling of the situation regarding your cousins. As your only relatives they have played a significant role in your life, and you have honoured them at your most important moments; the choice is now yours as to whether this contact continues or ends.
For example, you could decide to give your cousins a fair share of the inheritance on the death of your aunt, and then negotiate the intermediate needs on this basis. This would have the effect of demonstrating your esteem for them in your life and open up the possibility of your children having relationships with their children in the future. Of course, they are still likely to be reluctant to be helpful to your aunt, who from their perspective favours you above them – and this may present a barrier to genuine care. There may also be tax implications to your giving any of your inheritance to your cousins, so many and varied conversations would need to happen, and these may include the advice of an accountant. If you were to follow this route, you would need to be clear with yourself and your cousins what the money is for, eg help with the caring, or primarily to repair your relationships with them.
You can only do so much in terms of mending your cousins’ relationship with your aunt, but your relationship with them is something you can work on directly. If you decide to let things continue as they are you are almost guaranteed that two things will happen: the first is that you will get no assistance in caring for your aunt, and secondly your relationship with your cousins is likely to deteriorate further. We see money as value, and they may see your keeping the inheritance to yourself as unfair. You did not ask to be in this position (that of having to choose whether to have your cousins in your life), but this is where you have found yourself.
If you decide to negotiate, then you may well benefit from some professional help: a session or two with your cousins that is managed by a mediator or family therapist would help manage emotions and keep some objectivity in the discussions. Alternatively, you will have to let go your own sense of unfairness that you are left to support your aunt alone and accept a split in the extended family that is unlikely to be easily healed.