Equally Loved, Unequally Abled: How to Divide Inheritance Among Your Children

Equally Loved, Unequally Abled: How to Divide Inheritance Among Your Children

We face something of a moral issue today, one where survey and calculation do us no good.

We face something of a moral issue today, one where survey and calculation do us no good.

If you have children and any sort of assets, from slim IRA to Rockefeller-sating estate, you’ll face it one day. How much inheritance should you leave to the kids?

Their abilities differ and they have varying needs, no doubt. It’s an eternal truth: mothers and fathers love their kids equally, yet differently. Some can be left to run and roam – like me, rambling across the globe. Years ago, in the elevator up to my Moscow flat, I was bemused by my phone bill, and so was my neighboring, nosy lift mate. I pointed to the pricey paper and clarified: “Mamachka; mamachka; mamachka…” Roam, middle child, but call your little mother.

Some kids need constant attention, no matter their age. They want for judgement; they lack mettle; they’re bad-news bears, feckless if cuddly. The issue can be serious, beyond simple shortcomings: mental disturbance, enslavement to substance. These millstones can persist for both sufferer and parents. Things need to be sorted, even beyond mom and dad’s physical presence on the planet. They know it, so they start to plan.

I can share an example of a cantankerous parent – the mother had passed when I met him, sadly – burdened by two sons. Living punishment for his sins, we might say – he said it, in my earshot. Dad had money, was getting on with aging, worried about legacy, our old issue. He was a sharp fellow – we’ll call him Kelly, but he needed to be Solomon to sort out those two.

Kelly favored the sword. He’d landed on Omaha Beach in 1944, and could do a creditable imitation, to my ear, of the sound battleship shells make as they bounce off concrete fortifications. “Uh, oh,” he thought in the landing boat, hearing that macabre warbling wail, and he was right. He fought through France, Germany, eventually Korea, and the Vietnam highlands. Kelly might have kept going, an anti-Cacciato, but his knees gave him pain, just like those kids. A colorful soldier, just a tad rough as a father.

He started the trouble himself at their christenings: one son, eldest boy, he named Garand; the younger he branded Browning. Oh, after the firearms inventors, John Garand and John Moses Browning, I offered, from a mind cluttered with unremunerative facts.

“No – top kick is named after the M1 Garand” – that’s a famed rifle, gentle ones. “And the rookie is named for the ‘fifty’.” That’s a fifty-caliber machine gun, built on Browning’s patent – ‘old reliable’ to Kelly, unlike its namesake. We’re entering an unsafe space now, readers, so hold on.

Garand tried out the Army, as expected of him. First, he went Infantry, which in peacetime involves washing trucks and smoking to ease boredom, said ‘G’. Bad attitude and brains got him away from the troops and into college; finally, he flourished. Your tax dollars paid for – get this – an MBA. The Army needs squared-away number guys for budgetary skirmishes. Lieutenant ‘G’ was their point man with a spreadsheet, hoo-ah!

So: a free MBA from a top university, with just one year left in his hitch. The Army was expecting Garand to stay, given his pedigree and their pricey commitment. I ran into ‘G’ in Moscow in 1999, and he was already a legend, in the town and a few barrooms near Army bases back home, which he’d still best avoid. No problem for Garand, already a sushi-eater with the best of the oligarchs. Dad’s head must have hung low.

Maybe ‘rookie’ would come through, be a hit to cheer dad. Get ready for this: today, Browning works as – breath deep, now – a community organizer. Yes, he first earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology. A nutty professor, but personable, when he’s not at my throat for being a corporate shill, a moniker I’d wear on a t-shirt. I really must chuckle, as you’ll be finding out shortly, as old dad played the jolliest joke.

Kelly visited Moscow and stayed for a month, no fooling around even with tourism. I kept an eye out, wanting no foolishness of photographing railways, hoarding jam or propagandizing bourbon. We talked and he laid out his plans. Kelly believed I understood finance, as I worked in an investment bank. He’d obviously never been inside an investment bank.

He kept calling it his “fire plan,” with ghoulish G.I. reason. Garand would be getting cold money. He didn’t deserve it, the traitorous rat – that’s my soft paraphrase of his descriptor of firstborn, which rattled my cracked windows, unpublishable. Legacy is duty and vice versa, he kept saying, the old confounder. It did my head in for years, that aphorism, though now I see his point.

Garand eventually got the portfolio, and a life policy payout, the remains of dad’s IRAs, and his collection of ‘kraut’ daggers, vile monstrosities, pricey as platinum. ‘G’ knew beforehand: dad insisted he justify the decision. Garand assembled a presentation – PowerPoint, the Army’s addiction, I kid you not, and Kelly approved: “Make it so”. Sonny G is now sorted out, if unfathomably grumpy about it. I guess he misses Kelly, the tilting at familial windmills. Browning says he understands his brother just fine – it’s all a family affair.

And what about Browning, that half-commie oddball? Kelly’s grand strategy for his ‘anti-corporatist anarchist’ son was rather delicious, like C-rats heated on a burning tank hull: he established a trust, named Browning executor. See, the Army’s all about the irony.

Dad let life wash over him, like a stone greeting the sea, but he knew about suffering. Battle fatigue – PTSD nowadays – was a companion. The trust fund, he commanded, would help finance counseling centers, veterans programs, anything Browning sees fit within its OD dictates. The boy draws a salary – not too much, nor too little. Oh, and dad funded a life policy for the kid. Kelly’s becoming my hero.

Despite evidence to the contrary, and I’ve left out the weird, they were a loving family. The boys wanted Kelly happy, and though often misbegotten, they earned education, strove for success, to build productive and worthwhile lives. Kelly’s grip was intense up to strangling, but he worried about those crumbs, thought deeply about them, took steps.

All families are crazy, logically making them all normal. There is no formula for divvying up an estate. I offer just this: when helping their kids, parents must temper their unfathomable hearts with reason, seasoned by those secret insights only they can grasp. For the clunkiest kids, a solution will rise, one that works, even into the great yonder. Those are near Kelly’s words, as I recall them, as he told me in Moscow, that capped volcano, and most redoubtable of fathers.

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