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The question

I have three adult children (one who lives overseas) and eight grandchildren. Recently, I decided to make a sizable gift to my grandchildren in my will. Hopefully to help them each buy a house. The adult children will be also very well taken care of in my will. One of my children has four children and the others two and two. The adult child (with two children) living overseas is claiming that I am being grossly unfair to them, in giving the money equally to the grandchildren in my will. I feel that I love my grandchildren equally and have to treat them equally. The other adult child with two children agrees with me. Of course, the other problem is the taxes they incur by living in a foreign country. But wasn’t it their decision to move there? Do I compensate them for that? I am afraid that this problem will cause a permanent rift in our relationship.

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The answer

Ask any expert on wills and inheritances and they will tell you: Families can be riven and ruptured by squabbles over these matters.

A recent This American Life (a U.S. public-radio show and podcast) had an episode about a parent who left money in their will to 11 squabbling kids, saying essentially, “You figure it out among yourselves.”

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Ixnay! What a horrible idea. Before I continue on to talk about the money, let’s just talk about emotions. What you want is to die and people to unpack beautiful soliloquies about the many moments they shared with you. Their moments, and memories.

What you don’t want is for your surviving family members to forget these beautiful memories and moments in a vicious squabble over whatever assets you left behind.

So you have to be extremely judicious in how you disburse these funds. Before I go on, please allow me to say a) congratulations on acquiring enough money that you can give “sizable gifts” to whomever, and b) I’m not 100 per cent sure why one of your offspring feels hard done by (because he/she has fewer kids and therefore gets less money?) and c) what an ingrate for looking a gift horse/windfall in the mouth.

(I guess you don’t look a windfall in the mouth, you simply allow it to rain down upon you, but I hope you see what I’m saying.)

To me the ticklish question is: Do you simply distribute the funds equally or do you use a needs-based system?

Do you employ a Marxian ethos: “From each according to his means, to each according to his needs.”

(Or capitalistic: “To each according to his greed, from each according to his spleen.”)

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Allow me to give an example: My sister is rich, and I am not. When my mother’s time comes, which I hope and believe will not be for a long time, I’m sure she will distribute whatever dough she has equally among myself and my sister and my brother.

I’m afraid in some terribly unworthy tiny back chamber of my nautilus-like mind will be a little gurgling thought, “I need it more than my already rich sister.”

Unworthy! I know! I already said that. And I plan immediately to quell and quash that thought.

From a Forbes article: “Aging parents we see in our work here struggle with their concept of fairness with adult children when some do better financially than others. They ask themselves, does the high-powered executive daughter really need the same inheritance as her struggling artist brother? Or how about the son who is a teacher or works for a non-profit? The other siblings are financially successful bankers and professionals. … Some go ahead and keep it all equal regardless of financial need of any heir. I hear them say that they feel guilty if they do estate planning intended to give unequal shares among their children. Other elders want to reward the ones who pay them the most attention in old age as compared with the children who can’t find time to visit. It gets sticky.”

Well, I know it’s tough but as an advice columnist I have to come down one way or another and so will say: Do what you’re doing and stay the course. Distribute funds equally, and if they squawk, that’s their business. If they complain, explain. And if they continue to complain, just remember the Golden Rule: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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