Question: My dear mother is coming near the end of her life. For the last twenty years, I've had the pleasure - and okay, sometimes the burden - of living in the same city and caring for her. Medical appointments? I go with
her. Home repairs? I handle them. Holidays? I make sure she's with us. You get the idea.
My sister, on the other hand, is mostly absent. She's never been as close to mom and while it's true that she lives on the other side of the country, she rarely calls, and has never invited mom out for an extended visit.
Meanwhile, mom - who hasn't yet made up her will - just broke it to both of us that, because I've been taking care of her, she wants to leave the bulk of her estate to me when she dies. Her home, her cottage and some cash assets. My sister? She gets mom's 2000 Honda Accord.
Well, it's been an ice storm ever since that announcement. I want to talk to my sister, but she won't answer my calls. Are my mom's wishes even legal? In some ways, I think maybe I should get more of the inheritance, but I'm not sure it's worth accepting it if it's going to ruin my relationship with my sister. What do I do?
Answer: I always get depressed when I hear tales of inheritance scuffles. Money divides so much of the world already - does it really have to also drive apart a family? I've heard stories like this often enough that I guess the answer to that is: Yes, it does.
It sounds like you're not exactly boned up on your inheritance law, and neither am I, so I talked to Charles Wagner, a Toronto lawyer who regularly represents people suing each other over their folks' money. He says that your mother is currently "intestate," which does not, as I first guessed, refer to her bowel movements. It just means that she currently doesn't have a will. "Without a will, the laws of intestacy apply," says Mr. Wagner, "which means that where there is no spouse, the closest relatives inherit the estate." In other words, if your mom were to pass away now, her money would be split fifty-fifty between you and your sister.
According to Mr. Wagner, one of the ways around this is joint tenancy, which means having your mom make you a partner in her assets, like her house or bank account. Then, when she dies, since her estate was jointly owned by you, it passes to you by what is called the right of survivorship. However, this scenario is not snag-free. You have to have some solid proof that it was your mom's intention to pass everything to you, and not just a way to make it convenient for you to manage her affairs. Also, your sister could take you to court, saying that your mother was coerced into the joint tenancy by you or that she wasn't in the proper state to make that decision.
But it sounds like what's tearing you up here isn't your desire to get your hands on the that pile of cash - and all of it. It's that you actually feel kind of bad for your sister. Sure, you've put in your dues as the diligent and caring daughter. But your sister is still your mother's daughter too. And all she gets is a lousy Honda Accord?
Look, if I were the judge in your case, based on the little information that I know, I would say you should get more of the inheritance. You could be writing a best-selling novel or hawking homemade buttons on the street (or whatever you do), but instead you're attending to your mother. Your future financial state will be impacted by your devotion, and I think you should be rewarded for that.
But, if you want to keep the peace with your sister, it's worth thinking back to your childhood to see how things got into the state they did in the first place. "I see a lot of litigation getting its roots in perceived unfair treatment from a young age by children," says Mr. Wagner. Based on the fact you say your mom and your sister were never "as close," I wonder if this is playing into this inheritance drama.
So, with all of that in mind, here's what I think you should do: Talk your mom into making a will that recognizes what you have sacrificed for her but is also generous to your sister. And a heart to heart isn't going to cut it. Mr. Wagner recommends you visit a good wills and estate lawyer and officially record her intention so that there are no holes for lawyers like Mr. Wagner to exploit. What you'll end up getting at the end of all this might be less money, but a mended family.
I don't know about you, but I'd much rather use my inheritance in years to come meeting my sister for a week of sunbathing and partying in Costa Rica than duking it out it in a courtroom.
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