The Treatment Decision – Leaving an Inheritance

Hello!  Today’s topic is challenging: “How much money should I leave each of my children?”  Wow – what a loaded question!

I won’t lie to you:  there are days when Judy and I wish that the logistical complications of having five children were fewer.  Have you ever tried to take 23 people out for a “quick dinner” on vacation?  It does not happen.  The more people you have in your life, the more complicated planning and executing even simple decisions becomes!  Even pizza for 23 is a massive undertaking.

As I have taught for years, I believe the “how much?” question is best answered by the “uniqueness principle,” which states, “if I love my children equally, I will treat them uniquely.” 

That means pizza with olives, pizza with no anchovies, pizza with extra cheese, pizza with all veggies, and on and on…

Wait!  What did you say?  If I love them equally, I will do WHAT?  You may be thinking that I am trying to complicate your life, but take a moment to consider the principle with me.

As parents, we work very hard to avoid favoritism.  If we read the story of Joseph in Scripture, it is clear that favoritism among children is very dangerous.  I am not advocating favoritism. 

My belief is that loving children equally means that you will honor them by treating them according to their unique gifts, abilities, challenges and life circumstances.  Perhaps you have a physically or mentally challenged child; perhaps you have a child who has traditionally been irresponsible with material things; perhaps you have a child who is called into ministry; perhaps you have a child who has been widowed or divorced; or perhaps you have a child who has experienced much financial success in their life.  A parent who knows their adult child and takes into consideration the ways that passing wealth to that child could either hinder or help them loves that child very well.

But, there is a key here.  It would be dangerous if this “uniqueness” principle seemed arbitrary to the child.  My hope is that you honor your adult children by treating them uniquely in all areas of their life, not just with wealth transfer. 

 Communication is a major key to having this principle work for your family.  Obviously, the distribution of wealth will create emotions in your children.  Money, as a symptomatic force, will often bring out underlying issues and problems within a family.  As you discuss your will with your adult children, you will need to be prepared to address the issues and problems that the discussion may bring up.

When we have young children, we work hard to be fair in our treatment of them.  I used to travel to Africa when my kids were growing up.  I never dreamed of bringing only one child a gift from Africa!  Of course, each of them expected to receive something special from my trip.  In contrast, adult children are able to understand the distinctions of why an act of generosity toward another adult child may be specifically appropriate or helpful to that child.  They would not necessarily expect the same treatment, but you would be very wise to explain your reason for helping the other child so that they could better understand.

Finally, since I know this is a hard concept to implement, remember that you are the steward, and accountable ultimately to God. You are a steward of God’s resources on His behalf.  You are not a steward of your adult children’s resources.  To simplify the decision, and to make it in light of wise stewardship, I recommend asking the following three questions:

  1. What is the worst (or best) thing that could happen if I transfer wealth to ______________?

  2. How serious is that outcome?

  3. How likely is it to occur?

I’ll close with a story.  One time, I gave a talk at a church on this topic.  Following the talk, a doctor and his wife came up to talk with me.  They had three children, including a son who was involved in a lifestyle they did not support and who was not following the Lord.  They had basically decided that in the interest of “good stewardship,” they would leave the wayward son out of their will.  Giving him a sizeable inheritance, they believed, would be akin to wasting God’s money.

The problem they came to me with was this:  they felt uncomfortable with their decision.  They had prayed about it and sought counsel, and they still could not come to peace with the decision to disinherit their son.

I prayed a prayer for wisdom and was reminded of the three questions above.  We began to talk through the questions, and they told me that the worst thing they could see happening to their son if he was disinherited was that he would become very angry and permanently turn his back on Christ.  They told me that the best thing that could happen if he received his portion of the inheritance was that he would be softened toward the Lord and possibly grow toward Him. While they understood that they were not “buying” his heart, they also knew that the consequences of leaving him out of the will were too grave, spiritually, for them to be able to accept them.  By the end of our discussion, they had come to peace with the wisdom of leaving their son in their will.

So, you see, this is never an easy decision, and it is not one that a stranger can tell you how to make for your own family. You and your spouse need to pray and seek counsel as you make this decision together.

Remember:  love them equally; treat them uniquely.  In doing so, remember communication and stewardship.

May God’s peace encourage you as you pursue financial wisdom and depend on His Truth.