Each week our resident agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe helps a reader with a problem. This week, a woman is caught in the middle of a family predicament...
I’m one of five children and have always been very close to my mum. I’m the youngest by nine years and my eldest brother is 20 years older than me. My father died when I was in my teens and we all drifted a bit while my mum was lost in grief.
As three of my siblings live abroad and my only sibling in the country has addiction issues – and has previously stolen from my mum - my mum has come to rely on me primarily. I live quite close to her and drop in every other day for a chat and to make sure she has everything she needs. I also take her out at least one day per weekend, sometimes with my partner, who she’s also very fond of. She’s in her late eighties now and can’t do much by herself.
As I’m here to look out for her, my siblings take little interest in how she is, only calling for updates if my mum has any big health scares or falls. Some years ago she told me that she wanted to leave her house to me when she dies. I told her that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that as my siblings would be upset. She said they didn’t deserve the house as they’d never looked out for her or taken an interest.
She feels like her time is nearly up and has started talking about the house again, adamant that it will go to me only. It is her main and most valuable asset, while my siblings are due to receive a small cash sum each. I don’t know what to do as I know when she goes that this will tear our family apart. I don’t have much of a relationship with any of them but still feel that taking on the house would be bad karma and damage relationships for good.
- Caught in the Middle, Athlone.
When King Lear decided to test his three daughters by telling them that he would leave the biggest share of his wealth to the daughter who demonstrated the most profound love for him, he didn’t count on his favourite and only trustworthy daughter, Cordelia, opting out of the farce. Despite his warped attempt to prevent his kingdom defaulting to his daughters’ husbands under feudal law once he was dead, he was evidently clueless to the toxic claws of greed. Or too consumed by vanity? Either way, it didn’t end well. Spoiler alert: they all died gruesome, bitter deaths. Even the nice one.
Which is weird because fights over land, wealth and power have been rumbling on since the dawn of the agricultural revolution, 10,000 years BC, when we started flirting with the concept of ‘mine.’ All mine!
Unlike Lear, it sounds like your Mum knows exactly how her plans are going to go down. She no doubt feels rejected and disappointed by your siblings' apparent lack of concern for her wellbeing. It’s not unnatural to want to reward you for your loyalty and care while she has the power to do so, even if it means your siblings will miss out.
As of 2017 legal reforms, parents no longer have a ‘moral duty’ to leave an inheritance for their children, as long as those children are over the age of 18, or 23 if in full-time education. This means it is more difficult for children to challenge wills where they feel they have been diddled out of their dues. These recent rulings signal an end to the notion that children are even entitled to an inheritance. The law now accurately reflects the fact that people are having fewer children and parents are living longer and need to fund their own later life health and care requirements. In many cases, children find themselves in a position of having to supplement their parents’ later life living expenses, not the other way around!
However, your situation is further complicated as you mention that your only other sibling in the country struggles with addiction and has stolen from your Mum. I am not a solicitor, obviously – knocking out those disclaimers – but there may be grounds for your sibling to challenge the will where your Mum has a perceived ‘duty of care’ to your sibling. This would be if your sibling doesn’t have the means or potential to adequately provide for themselves, which may well be the case. Provision would have to be made in your Mum’s will if so. There are lots of ways to control the release of funds long-term – for example, setting up a trust - which should be discussed with your solicitor.
Which is the first thing you should do! Respect your mum’s wishes and meet with a solicitor to discuss any likely issues or tax implications. She should also write a letter accompanying the will, stating that she is compos mentis while rationalising her decision. This will further prevent a legal challenge once her estate is divided and highlight how valuable your help and support has been to her.
Discuss the possible emotional impact of your Mum’s decision to exclude your siblings from her main asset and your resultant isolation. Although your Mum is looking out for your best interests, she is dividing the family in the process and you will be the brunt of their frustration. Your siblings may have good reason to stand back, whether they’re grappling with unresolved issues from childhood or banking years of spitting resentment. They may want nothing to do with your Mum’s estate or be expecting an equal share in ‘compensation.’
Communication seems to be the over-riding issue here so once you have seen the solicitor and your Mum’s mind is fixed, the ideal would be that she calls a family meeting – over Skype maybe? – to share her wishes. This will not be pretty but it will at least spare you the outrage and venom once she is gone and again minimises the chance of her will being contested.
Being disinherited or receiving a minimal pay-out can leave a legacy of pain. If your Mum’s decision is driven by bitterness, and not a sense of justice her wishes will doubly sting. In this regard – if bitterness is thrusting her onwards – sourcing a suitable counsellor for her to chat with is not a bad idea. I know no-one in their 80’s, who hasn’t already had some sort of talk therapy in their lives is going to be remotely open to sharing their story but...it’s worth a try! If it reframes and softens your Mum’s attitude to her children and helps her build bridges in the years before she dies then job done.
If the worst comes to the worst and no olive branches are exchanged, as long as you don’t inherit the house under condition that you must live in it until your death (or other such limiting clauses), you can always sell the property and divide proceeds fairly among your siblings. If you’re an actual saint.