Editor’s note: This is the follow-up to a Money Today column titled “Parents’ help goes to lavish lifestyle” that ran in the July 7 issue.
Joyce watched the color drain from her brother’s face. Joyce, Joey and the other siblings listened carefully as a lawyer explained their father’s will.
All the farmland was going to the non-farming children. A paragraph in the will explained that Joey, the only farming child, had been helped throughout his entire farming career. He had received his father’s inheritance while his father was alive.
After a few moments Joey’s face went from pale to bright red. Many angry words were said, and Joey stormed out of the lawyer’s office stating they would all hear from his lawyer.
The room was quiet for several minutes, and then the remaining siblings began to talk. The will was not a surprise to Joyce. She tried to talk to her father over the years about how the rest of the family felt. The truth was they had all been overlooked.
When Joyce and her siblings were young and preparing to go to college, there was no money from the farm to assist them. They had taken out student loans and worked. Some had been more successful in life than the others, but none were destitute. The non-farming children were not angry for the lack of help. They knew farming was difficult.
They had also watched as their father assisted Joey in his new farming operation. Their father loaned Joey money which had never been paid back. In the 1980s, when times were tough, gifts were made to Joey to keep him from going broke. There were several large machinery purchases and an 80-acre parcel of land with cosigned notes. These ended up being paid for by their father as Joey seemed unable to make the payments.
During this same time, Joey built a large new house for his family. He always had a fleet of new vehicles and a new truck almost every year.
Over the years, Joyce and her siblings approached their father to see if he could assist them as well. The reply was always the same. Their father’s credit had been used up by Joey.
The non-farming children and their mother knew Joey was taking advantage of his father. For many years their father would hear none of it.
This same pattern continued for almost 30 years. Nothing changed until their mother was dying of cancer. With his wife’s impending death, Joyce’s father had a change of heart. Her parents talked for many hours about their lives and decisions. Her father eventually recognized how much Joey had taken advantage of him. He also recognized how much he hurt his other children.
Joyce’s father tried to talk to Joey about his financial situation. Joey would hear none of it and simply felt that as the farming son, his opinion was the only one that counted. He believed everything his father had should be his. Joey’s family had become used to a more affluent lifestyle, and he would not consider making changes.
Joey’s father intended to break the news to Joey about his inheritance decisions but, as often happens, the time was never quite right. And then his health deteriorated to such a point he didn’t have the energy. He was reluctant to fight with his son. His wife passed away in February, and he passed away in May.
News of the inheritance came as a severe shock. The lawyer assured the remaining children that the will was valid. Joey’s lawyer did file paperwork contesting the will but was unsuccessful.
Looking at their situation, what lessons can be learned from Joey and Joyce’s experiences? Was their father wrong with how he treated his children? Was Joyce wrong with how she viewed her brother?
The first thing to understand is that an inheritance is a gift. It is assets not consumed by our parents before they die. No one has a right to an inheritance. The gift is decided by the parents. It is not determined by what other people think is fair or equitable. It is totally determined by the person making the gift.
Next, financial future should not be based on an unknown inheritance. Large medical expenses, nursing home care, changes in the cost of living, and many other unknown variables can affect an estate.
Third, a parent’s perspective changes as they consider what they want to accomplish with their estate. This can be both good and bad. There are numerous stories of unscrupulous relatives befriending a person near the end of their life hoping to be the beneficiary of last-minute changes.
The age-old advice to spend less than you make is true for all of us, including Joey. It does not matter if you farm, work in a factory, teach school, or own your own business. No amount of desire or perceived fairness allows you to live above your means.
Joey adopted a lifestyle he could not support without his father’s continual contribution of assets and income. By choosing to ignore financial principles, Joey burned up most of the equity others had built up.
After his father’s death, Joey and his family did not starve, and they were not destitute. However, his family did fall apart as many families do over financial stress. It was a painful process to go through.
Bob Dunaway and Associates offer estate and retirement planning. Gary Johnson can be reached at 563-927-4554 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.