Pay Dirt

I Accidentally Found My Mom’s Will, and Oh Boy

I think she just wants to spite my sister.

Woman looking at a piece of paper
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Spoon Graphics.

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

I am in my early 30s and have a sister in her mid-30s; our mother is in her late 50s. A few days ago I was in my mother’s home (she’s currently on vacation) housesitting. While I was going through a drawer in her room to borrow a top to wear, I found what looks to be her will. I know I shouldn’t have, yet I decided to read some of it. I was taken aback by what I read.

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My mother has decided that instead of splitting an inheritance down the middle, she will leave the majority of her money and things (including the house and everything in it) to one child, while the other will barely get 10 percent. You might think that I’m the one getting left with next to nothing, but no—it’s actually my older sister. Over the years, the two of them have never gotten along very well. A part of it has to do with perceived favoritism. When I was younger, my mother would always gush over me while criticizing my sister, who was and still is her polar opposite in many ways. It seemed to worsen once I had a couple of kids and my sister remained child-free; it appears she thinks I have priority over my sister because of this. That’s not necessarily to say that our mother intends to leave me everything because I have kids to consider. I have to say that it’s just as likely she’s doing it to spite my sister.

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I haven’t been able to forget it now that I’ve seen it. Of course, I would simply turn over half of everything to my sister after the fact, but I’m uncomfortable knowing this information. My mother isn’t yet back from her trip. Do I ask her about the will? I’m not sure I can convince her to change it, but I’d give it a try if I didn’t think she’d decide to give everything to charity just to ensure my sister never gets it. I could try giving my sister a head’s up, but I fear that she’ll be so angry that she’ll confront our mother about it, leading to the same outcome. I also fear that she might subconsciously resent me when she learns of our mother’s will, be it sooner or later. The only other possibility I see is to just remain silent and wait, feigning surprise after our mother’s gone. What do you think is the best route?

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—Don’t Want to Be the Heir Apparent

Dear Don’t Want to Be the Heir,

I’m sorry that your mother is putting you in this position. It sounds like she’s using the inheritance to manipulate your sister after her death, which is petty and sad.

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I think you need to talk to your mother about it and make sure that she understands that this effort to spite your sister is only going to cause more conflict and puts an unfair burden on you. Since she did allocate some portion to your sister, I doubt she’d give it all away to ensure that your sister gets nothing.

You’d also be giving your mother a chance to rectify her mistake before it’s too late. If she refuses to change the will, tell her that you plan to split your portion with your sister regardless. She can be petty toward your sister if she wants, but she can’t force you to enable it. You should also tell your mother that you plan to be honest with your sister about what’s happening if she insists on going this route. It’s one thing to create a mess that you’re not around to deal with, but I doubt she wants this kind of conflict while she’s still here.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My partner (whom I love dearly and want to be with long term) really wants to get married, but I am hesitant to legally bind myself to someone who doesn’t have their financial ducks in a row. They’re freelance (so no 401(k)), 37 years old, and only put $500 in an IRA recently to appease me. They have no investments, stocks, or retirement plan beyond the few hundred in the IRA. The good news is they aren’t in debt and make around $80,000 a year pre-taxes. I’m frustrated that she doesn’t seem to value planning for a healthy financial future as much as I do, and frankly I don’t want to take care of someone who could have figured this stuff out but didn’t. Am I being unreasonable to ask them to work on this before considering marriage? A prenup was mentioned, and she seems down to sign one (I make six figures, and my career is on the up and up), but is that enough? I can’t tell how much I’m putting the cart before the horse here or if what I’m desiring out of a partner is fair.

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—To Wed or Not to Wed

Dear to Wed or Not to Wed,

If your potential fiancée has no debt and makes a decent salary, she’s better off than a lot of Americans. The fact that your partner is a freelancer likely means she doesn’t have access to retirement savings plans with the incentives you have, so it may be more complicated for her. (She doesn’t have an employer-matching 401(k) contributions, for example.)

But when you say you don’t want to “take care of someone who could have figured this out,” it may be that you have some larger issues with the relationship. You didn’t indicate that you’re covering your partner’s bills, so the idea that you’d have to “take care” of her financially seems a little patronizing. And if she’s said yes to a prenuptial agreement, there’s no danger that she would take your money and run. It may just be that money and feeling fulling financially secure at this stage in your life is more important to you than it is to her.

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And that could be a value conflict. If so, you can decide to either navigate it—via counseling, and/or talking through the problem and coming to an agreement about a plan that works for both of you—or take it as a sign that you have larger discomforts with the idea of, as you put it, legally binding yourself to someone. Personally, I think that if the biggest problem you have with your partner is that she’s not regularly contributing to her retirement, that’s eminently fixable.

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Marriage will require that you navigate much tougher situations than that. (I say this as a married person who enjoys being married, and whose peers are mostly married.) Disparities in income are a common thing in marriage. And consider that at some point in your career, the situation may be reversed—your wife may be doing well, and you may have suffered some setbacks. You will encounter other things like serious illness, disagreements about how to raise children, needing to reaffirm your monogamy (if you choose to be exclusively monogamous) because interest wanes or is captured by someone else. These things are not just possibilities; they’re likelihoods, at least over the course of a very long relationship. The important thing is that you know you want to be with this person, if or when these things happen. Comparatively, retirement planning is a walk in the park. Given that, consider the possibility that you just don’t want marriage or don’t want it with your current partner, and be true to yourself on that count—and honest with your partner.

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Dear Pay Dirt,
When our older sister died, she left the majority of her estate to her goddaughter, my brother’s baby. It was over $1 million and left in a trust I oversaw. It was for my niece’s education and other expenses. She wouldn’t get full access until she turned 27. My brother and sister-in-law divorced in a civil manner when my niece was 7. For many years, everything went running smoothly—until my brother met “Emily.”

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Emily was a single mother with two kids. They got married. Emily had “opinions” about the trust—namely she and brother shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for his daughter’s expenses. Things like summer camp, school supplies, or her activities—all of which my brother is legally obligated to do. Things my brother never had a problem providing for his daughter until Emily. The excuse is that they need to provide for the other kids and it isn’t “fair” my niece gets to do things they can’t. Emily has tried multiple times to justify her greed to me until I refused to talk to her at all. My former sister-in-law had to take my brother to court over his behavior. It has poisoned his relationship with both her and their daughter. My niece loathes Emily and misses her dad. I love my brother, but I don’t recognize him anymore.

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I have tried to remain neutral as I can, but as the gatekeeper of the green, I keep getting dragged in. Now Emily is pregnant. My brother has told me to “convince” my niece to split the trust in two, saying that our sister would want to provide for both of his children. Otherwise, I am breaking our family apart and will not be part of his other child’s life at all. My niece and I are close. She is conflicted about having a sibling but hopeful that it will be a new beginning. Legally, our dead sister left loopholes because she expected my niece to have siblings but left the discretion up to me. I feel sick. What do I do here?

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—Conflicted Trust

Dear Conflicted Trust,

Your brother is being deeply unfair to you and to his own daughter. He and Emily are not entitled to any part of the trust, and if your older sister had intended that, your brother would have some discretion over how the trust was applied to family expenses. But your sister made you the trustee.

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That said, if you truly believe that your sister would have wanted to support any siblings your niece might have, you should talk to your niece about it. If she views the baby as an opportunity for a new beginning, she may have some additional thoughts about whether to include the baby or how sharing the trust might look. But you really have to use your own judgment about your sister’s intent. You might want to talk to an estate lawyer about your options and obligations, too.

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Your brother also needs to explain to Emily that the trust does not mean that he’s not responsible for his own daughter financially. The trust was designed to provide for your niece specifically and to ensure that she has what she needs, not to relieve your brother of his fiscal duties entirely. I think it would be reasonable to use the trust to fund some of your niece’s activities and educational pursuits, but he is still her father, and in the absence of the trust would be funding these things anyway. If your brother refuses to acknowledge these things, it also would be reasonable for you to tell them that you’re not going to discuss your niece’s trust again, except in the context that it applies to things it explicitly will pay for. If he wants to create a rift between his own daughters, he is responsible for that. You are doing your job as the trustee, in the way your sister intended.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I work in a close-knit office setting where everyone gets along. When we returned to the office, positions and responsibilities were shuffled to account for people who retired or moved on during the year-plus of working from home. Our boss decided that with more responsibility comes more pay, which is absolutely fair and makes sense, so a few people got promotions and compensation bumps. Another subset of the group was making dismal pay, so he bumped their pay up as well. This leaves a couple of us who didn’t receive pay increases because we don’t fall into either category; we make more than the junior staffers, but less than those who got promoted. In other words, in an office of 15 people, 13 got raises. Am I wrong in thinking that if you’re going to adjust compensation, you should do it for the whole team? I don’t begrudge or resent my co-workers, but I’m wondering if I should say something to my boss about the lack of equity.

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—Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

I think your boss is being rational if the two justifications for pay raises were more responsibility and bringing junior people in line with market rates. That said, there is something unusual about giving 13 out of 15 people raises, which surely your boss knows could be read not just as a measure of fairness, but also as satisfaction with performance.

I think it’s worth bringing up, if only to better understand what would be required of you to get a raise. One way to frame this conversation is to begin by acknowledging that you understand the rationale for giving your colleagues raises, that you appreciate the effort to make pay rates fair, and that you don’t begrudge them their increased pay. I think it’s OK to then be honest about the fact that you found it a bit demoralizing to be one of only two employees who didn’t get a raise, and note that you want to make sure you’re doing all of the requisite things to put yourself in line for a pay bump. If your boss is genuinely oblivious to the fact that he created a situation where you and your one colleague are left out and maybe feeling a little underappreciated, that should make it clear to him that you’re committed to the work and want to make sure that he recognizes that. The worst case is that you come away from the conversation with mutually understood expectations about what would precipitate a raise and a better sense of where you stand generally.

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—Elizabeth

Classic Prudie

I’m close to graduating with a doctorate degree in a lucrative field. About a year ago I met my boyfriend, whom I love dearly. He has no college education. He was in the military and had planned to make a career of it until he was medically discharged following injuries he sustained in Afghanistan. He currently draws enough disability to live on, but he works full-time at a fairly menial job for additional money and something to do. He enjoys his job, there’s room for advancement, and he has a desire to move up. My friends keep telling me that he is nothing but a freeloader waiting so that he can enjoy the bounty of my hard work.

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