My parents are in their late 80s and in failing health. My sister’s husband is a retirement planner, and my parents have relied on him for financial advice. As a result, my sister and brother-in-law have complete knowledge of how much money they have and where it’s invested. I was happy with this arrangement since my sister and I were close.
Unfortunately, this has changed, and she has made it clear that she no longer wishes to speak with me or see me. There is no possibility of reconciliation, and my once close relationship with my nieces has also been destroyed. Needless to say, I am grieving this loss.
My parents have always been financially generous, helping me with a $10,000 down payment for my condo and paying for my niece’s first year of college. They also gave my sister a large amount of money (I’m not sure how much and never asked, but I’m sure it’s well over $100,000) to build a house that has a bedroom and bathroom for them.
“‘My parents have always been financially generous, helping me with a $10,000 down payment and paying for my niece’s first year of college. They also gave my sister a large amount of money.’”
Ironically, she has made it clear to everyone that she is dreading the day when one or both of them has to move in with her. My parents know this, and continue to live independently despite needing an increasing amount of assistance.
I’m not worried about the division of the financial assets after they’re gone, because my parents have always tried to be fair. My concern is my sister’s belief that because I have had a conflicted relationship with my parents — though I have always loved and cared for them — and don’t have children, her eldest daughter has first pick of everything not assigned in the will.
Through the years, my sister has taken things from my parents’ home (with their permission) without consulting me. This includes a necklace that my mother purchased for me as a child, kitchen items, and pieces of my mom’s clothing.
She sees no problem with these actions, saying that I have no one to pass them on to, so she is justified in keeping these possessions in the family. Additionally, she says that since the brains in our family went to her, she has a right to everything that documents my father’s academic successes.
I don’t wish to burden my parents with these concerns, especially as their ability to function independently continues to wane. Once my parents are gone, I won’t have family left, and the thought of losing any reminders of them is devastating. Do you have any advice on how I can ensure that I inherit the sentimental items I want without burdening my parents?
The Other Sister
Dear Other Sister,
You have to have a conversation with your parents at some point. You set yourself an impossible task by trying to navigate this without discussing it with your parents or your sister. You need to know what you do want, to avoid disappointment. Difficult conversations are often the ones worth having.
When we are immersed in complex, emotional situations, especially with family members, the best approach is an honest one. Be direct and transparent. Tell them that your sister is not communicating with you and, as such, it would be best to document their valuables.
It’s never easy to have these kinds of conversations with parents, but it’s better to have them than to scramble after the fact, or sit back and watch items that you love slowly disappear from your parents’ home. Let them know that you wish to avoid conflict with your sister.
Offer to assist them in documenting their valuables and enlist the help of their estate attorney, if it helps you. Depending on how much time you and your sister spend with your parents, you may have to let go of a 50/50 split. You can’t be the eyes and ears of the house 24/7.
“Your letter is as much about losing your parents and what that will mean for you, as it is about losing items that your sister is allegedly pilfering from their home.”
However, you can speak up now and ask for cherished big-ticket items to include in their will. “My sister has that necklace you gave me, and it made me realize there are special things that are important to me and I would love to have after you’re both gone,” you could say.
The bulk of your parents’ estate will be split 50/50, and I would caution you not to become overly obsessed with a tit-for-tat with your sister over items in their home. This could be a years-long process. As long as you advocate for yourself and speak up, you will end up with some choice items, and lose others.
Your letter is as much about losing your parents and what that will mean for you, as it is about losing items that your sister is allegedly pilfering from their home. There is one thing you can give your parents now that you will never get back: your time. It’s important to acknowledge that and separate those two issues.
In the meantime, ask your parents what you can do for them. Do they need help with healthcare and end-of-life planning? Do they have any wish lists? With all this talk and feelings about their possessions and house, perhaps they would enjoy some time spent outside of their home.
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