Feb 1, 2009

On Inheritances, Greed, and Ticking Clocks

Old house, old folks

While visiting my grandparents yesterday, the subject turned to inheritances and wills. Now, I have to admit that I tend to avoid such discussions or to change the subject when they arise because, frankly, the thought of close relatives dying is unsettling. I have somehow managed to skate through life for 44 years without a single close relative dying.

Sure, my paternal grandparents passed away when I was young, but I was one of dozens of grandchildren, and "close" is not a word I use to describe people I saw two or three times a year in crowded gatherings of 25-40 Brooks family members. My dad's mom spent all of her time at family gatherings in the kitchen, and my dad's dad was glued to televised sporting events, and we grandkids spent our time either in the basement or outside.

So when my parents, my two siblings, or my maternal grandparents bring up the subject of estates and wills, I generally get uncomfortable. Yet I cannot postpone inheritance talk forever, as my grandparents are both in their early nineties and both my parents will soon be over 70.

I have also witnessed how disputes over estates can get nasty, bringing out the ugly sides of people you once respected. When my relatively impoverished mother-in-law's second husband died, his children all chimed in about how we should buy an expensive casket and have a lengthier showing, and they promised to help with the funeral expenses. Of course, once the life insurance checks went out to his children, the beneficiaries, not a dime went back to my mother-in-law, who ended up paying off the $4,000 funeral in monthly installments out of her meager weekly restaurant paychecks.

Then there was the fiasco when my dad's dad passed away. My paternal grandmother died in 1974, and my grandfather remarried, gradually becoming closer with his new wife's children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, while my grandfather no doubt experienced happiness late in life, his second wife of six years engineered a new will, completely shutting out leaving my dad and his siblings.

My dad was not angry about the monetary slight, but he was highly pissed that my grandfather's second wife wouldn't even allow the kids a few mementos. All my dad really wanted was my grandfather's old mechanic tools from the years he owned a gas station in Appalachia, Virginia.

Sorry - we had a garage sale and sold all that junk," was about how the conversation went.

Anyways, the purpose of our visit yesterday was to deliver a television set to my grandparents. We recently upgraded to a flat-screen, and our 36" cable-ready television was just collecting dust. Moreover, my grandparents had been watching a 21" antique with rabbit ears that probably dated from 1980, and my grandmother - who has macular degeneration - no longer could see much on the set.

My grandmother made a comment about how she would be sure to leave us in their will, which is kind of funny, since only my parents and siblings are left to bequeath anything to. But the more I think about wills and estates, the more I think I would trade anything they might leave me in exchange for my grandparents to live a few more years.

You see, there are few people in my life who have been more of an influence on me than these two wonderful folks. Some of my happiest childhood memories involve spending the weekend at their house, a place they have lived in for over sixty years. Moreover, my grandfather is easily the wisest person I know, and even in his nineties his dry wit and political insights would be the envy of any Sunday morning commentator.

You should have seen him in his prime!

My grandfather is fiercely proud, and I know that his initial reaction to the television set was probably that he had a perfectly good television. That's why I ran the idea past my grandmother first, so she could butter him up and make him know that this was not charity, but just a grandson who hated to see his PGA-loving grandfather have to watch his favorite sport on a television set that was probably manufactured when Jimmy Carter was President.

I also muse about the often distasteful process of dividing up the worldly goods and assets of people I love. It seems almost macabre to even think about items you might want to remember them by, and I would just as soon sign away any inheritance if it meant keeping the peace in the family.

Besides: how empty must it feel to be grieving the loss of a cherished family member the day a check arrives in the mail from an estate attorney? "Here you go, pal - how does twenty grand and a few Orient watches make you feel?"

This is also the ironic part: my wife and I are in perhaps the best financial shape of our married lives, and the appearance of an inheritance from a close relative would have little effect on our lives. We have no significant debt beyond our mortgage and some student loans, no stacks of unpaid bills, and anything we inherit would probably just get lumped into our own retirement savings.

But we would no longer have the generous people we love the most.

So on a day in which I should be watching four hours of pregame Super Bowl programming, I am instead feeling a bit glum about how rapidly time seems to travel as I get older. I regret the many times I passed up an opportunity to visit my loved ones in favor of working an extra shift or hanging out with friends, people I probably don't even speak with any more.

And I dread the day when all I will have to show of my parents and grandparents are a bunch of old pictures, some kick knacks, and a couple of inheritance checks.


Anonymous said...

Whoa, too close to home. My aunts and uncles are not speaking with each other since my dad passed and the will didn't please some of them. Powerful post, mikey.

dr-exmedic said...


One conversation you shouldn't wait to have is about end of life issues. Talking about stuff like who does or doesn't want to be on a ventilator, maybe even getting a living will and healthcare power of attorney (which are pretty easy in Ohio, doesn't even take a lawyer, you can get the forms from the Ohio Hospice and Palliative Care Organization) are just as important--if not more so--than will and inheritance issues.

microdot said...

Yeah, out here in the outback, that's the background drama that never goes away. L'heritage. The family that owned the house I live in now are still fighting and trying to screw each other over a few hectares of land. Then the nasty old grandpa showed up claiming that the divorce was never legally finished so he is entitled to a per cent of everything.
He was 96 and had a scheming 62 year old girlfiend who wanted our house after we had bought it, but thought she had an angle to prove the sale was illegal.
Happily for everyone, gramps died.

Anonymous said...

Well, not for everyone...

microdot said...

Hmmmm....I'm trying to think of someone who would have benefited from pappy living to be 100....
He was reputed to be the maker of some of the worst wine in the region which he consumed the greater part of, he raped his daughter, got the servant pregnant and the daughter had to pay the support to keep pappy from going to jail.
He and his son became bitter business rivals, both claiming to be the "King of Bulldozers".
He was forcably removed from the household and resissted all attempts by sheer avoidance to complete the legal divorce...he survived his wife.
The family though, believed that they had been legally divorced..
So he ended up buying a run down property on the 89 highway and started a little vineyard where he continued his tradition of making the worst wine in the region, which he drank the most of.
So, he had a much younger girlfiend who was his virtual slave, but she hung on because she belived his stories that one day...she would inherit everything.
Well, when the family started feuding after mother died, he popped in with his claim...
The girlfriend started to tell everyone that we were squatters in the house we bought...but in reality, there was no possibility in hell that there was a thread of legality. It was a relationship cemented by sheer nastiness.
They have a saying in the Dordogne,
"Hate Preserves" and you can see that it is true to some extent. There are coots that stay alive through the sheer orneriness of the struggle to know that if they stay alive long enough, they can win a feud by outliving an enemy....
Well, pappy kicked off a few years ago and even the girlfriend shed hardly a tear....

She got the house on the 89 with the lousy vineyard and today it's actually looking pretty good.

Carol said...


Never miss a minute that you can spend with your grandparents and parents. In a flash they can be gone and that is a horribly empty feeling that can't be filled by spouses or children. Trust me on that one.

As for 'estate matters' it would seem that that conversation should be had with as many of the potential heirs in attendance as possible. And the whole conversation should be recorded on video. That way those that are meant to retain some tangible item will know exactly what it is. And those that have fallen from grace will also know. It's a pretty clear way to get in front of any family squabbles later on.

When my dad passed I didn't ask for anything, nor did I expect it. My mom was in charge. When she passed there had been quite a blow up in the family and she had no will. The only thing I wanted ... an 8x10 photo of my folks. My sister fought me bitterly about it. She didn't want it, but she didn't want me to have it either. It was a pretty nasty event. Thank God the common sense of a neighbor prevailed and I got the photo. My sister kept the house, the bank accounts, the furniture, etc. I didn't care. It meant nothing to me.