Brace yourself. When your parents die, you may find yourself regressing, feeling once again like a helpless child—an orphan!—just when you and your equally stressed siblings face the emotionally wrenching task of divvying up your parents’ personal belongings and letting go of the family home.
Pity the poor children whose parents named them all as equal beneficiaries. Sure, it seems fair, and that’s what your parents intended, for each of you to get no more nor less than your brothers or sisters. But working out the details all too often brings long-buried childhood grievances and sibling rivalries back into the open.
To avoid painful clashes, begin a conversation now with your parents and your siblings, when decisions can be made without the added trauma of a parent’s death. Here are ways to minimize family drama.
1. Pick a leader. There are countless details to handle and decisions to be made either after a death or when your parents are no longer able to make their own choices. Even if your parents have already named someone outside the family to serve as executor for their estate, choose a sibling to be point-person and manage the process alongside the executor.
2. Remember, the family home is more than a piece of real estate. Many families focus on the house, but often it’s the contents that hold the most value for children—and the most potential for hurt feelings. Talk among yourselves about who wants your grandmother’s china or the piano, and then put a plan together that incorporates these heirlooms into a roughly equal distribution of assets.
3. Don’t be shy. If you want the house, say so. Then offer a plan for equalizing the inheritance, such as taking out a mortgage and paying your siblings with the loan proceeds.
4. Don’t wait to bring in a mediator. If two people want the house or other disagreements surface, hire a disinterested third party to mediate before things escalate into a full-blown family feud. Your parents’ estate attorney may be able to lay down some ground rules and diffuse any simmering emotional issues.
5. Decide not to decide. If emotions are raw and you can’t reach consensus, just back away from the process for a little while. Set up a plan for maintaining the home and schedule a time to revisit the issue. If face-to-face meetings are difficult, ask everyone to write a letter explaining what they would like to have happen.
6. Put it all in writing. Whatever plan you come up with, the point-person should write everything down in painstaking detail, and then have all of the siblings sign off on it. Then, if you’re doing this while your parents are living, add the plan to their will.