Our conversation came to mind as I read a recent column in Money Matters. A woman wrote that her brother Bob had a daughter who was put up for adoption as an infant. The daughter, Christine, is grown and she and Bob have been in touch for the past few years.
The writer's mother plans to leave her house to her two children, the writer and Bob. In the event they pre-decease her, their shares will go to their children, the writer's two daughters and Bob's daughter, Christine.
HOW MUCH AND TO WHOM?
Money Matters authors Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwartz sympathize with the writer. They write that, assuming Bob did not coerce his mother into including Christine, the writer should explain to her mother why she feels that her mother "should not be leaving a 50 percent stake in her home to Christine. You make a good case for why the scale of the bequest is inappropriate, and we hope your mother listens."
We disagree. The mother does not have to justify her decision to her daughter. No one owes anyone a bequest (other than the share spouses are entitled to under state laws). Surely, the mother is aware that her daughter has little money and that Christine has inherited substantial sums. She may be including Christine because she feels guilty about the roll she may have played in the adoption, and hope in this bequest to make up for that; and though the mother may not know Christine well, she may like Christine better than her other granddaughters. Regardless, it is the mother's decision on how she apportions her will.
First mothers that I know have approached the issue in various ways. Those without other children may leave all, or most of, their estate to the lost child. Lorraine made her daughter a beneficiary of her will before she knew who she was, hoping that because of the will she might be found, and thus know that her first mother never forgot her. Before my surrendered daughter Rebecca and I connected, I considered making her the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, thinking that the insurance company would have to find her, and that would give her the opportunity to know about me.
Some mothers have made all their children equal beneficiaries, as my friend wanted to do. Others have given their lost child a token gift--some family jewelry for example--but passed the bulk of their estate to their raised children. Others have given a small amount to each of their children and left most of their estate to charities.
I've also heard of parents of adoptive parents, the child's adoptive grandparents, leaving the adopted child out of their wills altogether while leaving substantial sums to their "blood" grandchildren. This is just cruel. We know of one story where a wealthy biological father, fully aware who his lost daughter was, explicitly left her out of his will, mentioning several times that she was not to be included. The adoptee is by no means wealthy herself and is raising several children. It's likely his wife, not the girl's mother, was behind this egregious act, but we do not know. We know of spouses of mothers who have surrendered children who do not want the mothers to leave anything to the child lost to adoption, despite a good reunion. We know of a spouse who did not want a recently reunited son of her husband's to be made known to her husband's father, for that would make her son, the "second" son, the second grandson, not the eldest. We did not ask, but we believed, it was due to the inheritance that might be lost.
First mothers may assume that if they don't have a will, their property will be divided among all their children. In fact, the property will be distributed according to their state's laws of intestate succession. (Intestate means having no will.) Because the relinquished child is not legally the child of the first mother, he may inherit nothing.
We have heard of stories of adopted children being told they did not have the right to inherit family jewelry and other possessions because they were not "blood." In fact, we know of one woman who learned she was adopted due to overhearing such a discussion about her adoptive mother's jewelry. Money can bring out the worst in people.
NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWER FOR EVERYONE
The one piece of advice to first parents--or anyone for that matter--thinking about what they want to have happen with their property after their death is to obtain the advice of an experienced lawyer. I wouldn't trust an online form to do the job. The time and money spent learning your options--wills, trusts, gifts, tax consequences--can assure that your wishes are followed.
Of course, there's no right answer to what to leave any of your children, lost to adoption or raised. Everyone has to look into their heart, consider the full impact of what heirs will feel upon learning who gets what, and decide what kind of legacy he or she wants to leave. A will may change relationships between the heirs generously included, or knowingly left out, or given only a token amount. Those who feel cheated are likely to harbor ill feelings towards those who are left generous bequests. Wills are strange instruments; in black and white, in cold cash and hard possessions, they may delineate the depth of good will and love, or lack of, towards another person. And their impact cannot be talked over or taken back, for their word is final. --jane
We would love to hear the thoughts and experiences of our readers. (Lorraine adds a caveat here, as she and her husband did consult a lawyer who did not understand what they wanted to do, and the papers he prepared were screwed up.)
Money Matters, "A Request Can Be Made To Change The Scale Of A Bequest"
American Bar Association Guide to Wills and Estates, Fourth Edition: An Interactive Guide to Preparing Your Wills, Estates, Trusts, and Taxes (American Bar Association Guide to Wills & Estates) A user-friendly guide that contains everything you need to know about planning an estate and preparing a will. It is organized in easy-to-follow chapters with sidebars containing tips, checklists, and key information, encouraging you to begin the process quickly and easily.--Amazon
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