Which Siblings Would You Like To Cut Out Of Your Parent’s Will?

Dear Prudence got a doozy of a letter this week:

Q. Inheritance and Responsibility: My mother is a lifelong substance abuser, and is now close to dying. Her parents left her a lot of money, including sizable funds for my brother and me, and she has been living off the investment income from this money for decades. My father divorced her decades ago, and my brother cut all ties with the family when he turned 18, leaving me the only family or friend my mother has. I know both she and my father were cruel to my brother, but I feel that it is now his turn to take care of her. However, I don’t think he deserves to inherit anything since I am the one who loyally stayed with our mother, to the cost of friends, jobs, and fiancées. Should I hire a lawyer and have both my mother’s and my grandparents’ wills revised to reflect and account for everything I’ve had to sacrifice, then sue my brother to force him to be a man, own up to his responsibility, and do his part to take care of my mother in her last years?

Nicole Cliffe’s response to this letter is admirably succinct. Prudence is a bit more circumspect but also critical:

Your brother got out to save his life. You made your decision to devote yours — at the cost of your own independence — to your mother. It sounds like a poor decision

Ha! Aw, poor LW. I’ll bet you expected some more compassion. Martyrs always do.

Prudence goes on:

do not compound that now by trying to manipulate a dying woman into changing her will. You don’t want your inheritance to be squandered on an “undue influence” suit filed by your brother. You say you stayed out your own sense of loyalty and duty. And now you want to get the whole pot of money to compensate you for your good character. Leave the will alone. From what you say, your brother, in his first 18 years, earned his share.

Here’s the thing about wills. You don’t earn the money coming to you from them. Even if you drop everything and take care of an invalid. Even if you live a blameless and sunshiny life. And, nota bene: no one who writes to an advice column asking, “Should I hire a lawyer and have both my mother’s and my grandparents’ wills revised?” is living a blameless and sunshiny life.

The only will you have the option to revise is your own. The only money you have control over is your own. The only life you have control over is your own — and do you really want to waste yours trying to use the legal system to lash out at your brother and “force him to be a man,” according to your shallow ideas of what men are and do?

Your brother got out. Whether it was irresponsible of him to do so, or self-preserving, or both, it was his choice, and you should respect that. You made a different choice, and if you’ve lost “friends, jobs, and fiancées” (!!) along the way, you can comfort yourself with the thought that at least you’ve done what you thought was your duty. Maybe you’ll be rewarded for it in Heaven, for being a good son to a hard woman. I doubt it; my version of Heaven is more like “food doesn’t have calories, schools and libraries are funded the way armies once were, and every movie theater is showing a free double-feature of some charming indie films you always meant to see but never got around to watching on earth.” But we can’t know.

Regardless, even if you don’t pursue your cockamamie, self-destructive visions of vengeance against your brother, you should have enough money coming to you to salve your wounds. Wrap dollars around your limbs like a cast. Swim through the coins like Scrooge McDuck. Crow like Gollum. Let the money settle and sustain you. That’s what you put up with the abuse for all those years, right? That’s why you let the jobs and fiancees go? The money. Try to be grateful for it. Try to remember it’s a gift.

If it turns out that the money is not enough after all, though, if you still feel stunted and resentful and full of rage, I suggest you do the only thing a person can do with money that will reliably heal the raw spots in your heart: give it away.

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