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The Problem with Trying to Be "Fair" With Your Children

28Dec 2009

In my role as a family coach for wealthy families, one of the common issues that arises is the parents’ desire to be “fair” with their children and grandchildren. (I put “fair” in quotation marks because it really is an unusual term that is defined differently by many people and is almost totally based on perception.)

For whatever reason, and I really don’t know exactly where it comes from, fairness is an extremely important issue in our culture that drives many decisions within families. Take, for instance, this past week’s events over Christmas — parents (regardless of their financial status) are quite concerned about giving the equivalent financial value (or perceived value) in gifts to their family members.

There are many challenges related to parents or grandparents trying to be fair with their family members. Let me cite a few:

The “givers” have their own perception of what is (or should be) fair. Most people have a hard time accurately or concisely describing what “fair” is, but they sure have a strong sense of it intuitively. Often it is described in terms of being “equal”, but when pressed about specifics or circumstantial differences, the concept of equal usually fades into the background.

The “receivers” usually have a different view of fairness from the givers (and from other receivers).Most of the family members with whom I work are genuinely grateful for any gift they are (or will be) receiving. The adult children and their spouses do not appear to be greedy, unthankful or have a sense of entitlement. They understand that the “givers” have the right to do whatever they want with their possessions. Nonetheless, when probing deeper, they often express a different viewpoint of what would be “fair” in how the gifts are distributed across the family — often not to their own benefit but out of concern for one of their siblings or in-law’s.

What is “fair” changes over time (pretty easily and often). Let’s take the recent volatility in the financial markets and real estate values. Suppose, in May 2008, some parents gave one of their children $100,000 in a blue chip stock; they gave their second child a house in Atlanta worth $100,000; and they gave their third child $100,000 in cash to use as they wished. Let’s assume each child wanted and agreed to the form of the gift they received (this isn’t always true, you know). So not only were the gifts “fair”, they were exactly equal in monetary value in May 2008 (which is an unusual occurance). But fast forward to May of 2009. The blue chip stock lost 40% of its value, so it is now only worth $60,000. The home in Atlanta lost 50% of its value and can’t really be sold for virtually any price. And the $100,000 in cash is worth $102,000 after they earned 2% on it in a money market account. Are the gifts fair now? Should the parents do some additional giving to make the monetary values equal?

When do you want fairness to exist? When do the givers want things to be fair. Now? Next year? When the business sells? When everyone has completed college? When dad dies and his life insurance proceeds create cash to equalize the gifts given? When both parents die and everything will be “equaled up”? “When” is an important question to answer — for a number of reasons. First, you have the most control over events closest to the present. So “now” seems to be a pretty good option. However, you may not have the liquid assets to make everything fair now, so “now” doesn’t work for many families. Secondly, the further out the “when” is, leaves more variables to chance and the likelihood of fairness not being achieved. Is it “fair” to your second child to wait until the business sells (say in 5 years) to make things fair, and they get divorced and become a single parent needing cash flow two years from now? Or is it “fair” to the eldest child who is running the business (and buying it from you) to wait to realize their inheritance when they sell the business (potentially) in twenty years? I can run a lot of scenarios that create problems.

So what do you do? Give up on the ideal of “fairness”. Maybe, but probably not. I try to help families (usually the senior couple or single parent) clarify what being “fair” means to them, to the best of their ability currently. Secondly, answering the question “when” is critical — and it differs significantly across families. Finally, I encourage family members to think more in terms of values, rather than fairness. Since fairness is a moving target across time and is perceived differently by almost everyone involved — I find making decisions based on what is important to you as a better guideline.

Is education for the next generation important to you? Then figure out a way to fund that. Is affordable housing important? Then figure out a way to help younger family members achieve this goal. Travel? Stay-at-home moms for your grandchildren? A financial safety net? Guaranteed health insurance? Whatever is important to you — pursue that as a gift.

You will eventually have to make some decisions about what you view as being “fair” — assuming you have more than one child. Do you try to equalize your gifts to your children? Or do you try to equalize them at the grandchild level (one of your children has two kids; his sister has three kids; and the youngest has one of his own and three stepchildren)? It’s not easy. But, hey, that is what I am here for — to help you think and talk through the issues, so you can come to a decision you can live with.

Remember, you don’t have to have a lot of money or “stuff” for this to be an issue. Dividing up the household furniture and belongings raises the same issues. Whatever you do, don’t let one of your kids or grandkids (who does have a greed or entitlement issue) “guilt” you into making decisions you don’t want to.

Until then, have a great and safe New Year’s celebration.

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