Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
Next month is my brother’s wedding and I am so excited, but I am not looking forward to dealing with my mother’s family. More specifically, two of her sisters. For some reason, they have never been happy with my life decisions or accomplishments.
I am the most educated person in my family and the only one to go to an elite college. I, however, did not have a traditional job during college or graduate school (and sometimes didn’t work at all). For some reason, this has always bothered them. They didn’t consider my athletic scholarship to be a form of work. They didn’t consider my teaching assistant/tutoring position. Both paid for all of my living expenses. When I graduated from grad school, I worked for a year before going into consulting. It was at that point that I realized they thought I was lazy for never having a nine-to-five job.
I think part of the issue is that I lived with my parents during parts of my schooling and for some time while I was getting my consulting business going. I also think they consider me a leech on my mother because my father almost ruined my mother financially because he refused to work. They don’t seem to care that I started paying rent after I graduated. Either way, they have always been very concerned about how I am making money and are not very polite about bringing it up.
Recently, I’ve had some incredible success financially. During the pandemic, a friend of mine and I started a business. It was quickly successful and after only a year, we started to receive offers to buy it. Last month, we finally found a buyer willing to pay a ton of money. My partner and I received our checks last week. We are basically set for life. We’re not rich but can basically retire in our late 30s. My aunts know I’ve sold the company, but they’ve always called it my “hobby” and I’m not sure they’d even believe me if I told them I was able to retire. I had planned to tell them that I was going back to consulting, which I might do very part-time. The only problem is, no matter what I tell them, I can see them making snide remarks about it, especially after they find out I’ve planned a long trip after my brother’s wedding.
I don’t really care about their opinions, but them saying it is beginning to ruin family events for me. I do not want my brother’s wedding to be ruined by their remarks. They do not ever seem to understand polite, mild attempts at changing the subject to socially appropriate topics. They will also most likely follow me around to try to talk to me about it. I honestly am not sure what to do. I’m fine with me or someone else being very stern with them. I don’t think they will make a scene, but I also worry that being stern with them will cause them to bug me even more. I’m getting so concerned that I’m considering doing something like “accidentally” pouring red wine on them so that they will either leave or be in the bathroom trying to get it out. Do you have any advice on what else I might be able to do?
Dear Wedding Woes,
I don’t think you have to resort to deceptions or weaponizing red wine to get your nosy aunts to leave you alone; I think you just have to be very direct with them. Your financial situation is none of their business and you don’t owe them an explanation, but more importantly, it does not matter whether they believe you sold your company or not. You did, and you should be proud of it. You say you don’t care about their opinion, but if that were true, you wouldn’t be anxious about having to deal with them at your brother’s wedding. You need to convince yourself that you don’t care, and behave as if that’s true. Don’t indulge their interrogations; set some boundaries.
If you feel like telling them about the sale, tell them when they ask, but note that you’d really rather not talk about work when it’s your brother’s big day. If they continue to do it anyway, give them a second warning that you really don’t want to discuss it. If they don’t respect your request, I think you should just walk away. Tell them you appreciate their interest, but you want to enjoy the day.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My parents are very patriarchal. My brother, the eldest, got more attention, resources, money, support, etc. over me, the daughter. My brother went to expensive private schools, landed a lucrative career, and married a wealthy woman with an identical background. He wouldn’t have such success otherwise. My brother’s marriage merges his wealth with my SIL’s multi-generational and personal wealth, which doesn’t come close to the self-made money my husband and I have.
My parents planned to leave their entire estate to my brother, trusting him to distribute money to me as he saw fit. Recently, my parents admitted the disparate treatment didn’t look great so they asked me how they should make it up. They’re worried the sibling relationship will continue to deteriorate after they die. I suggested they take a set amount of money (no more than 30% of the estate), give it to my brother, and leave the rest to me.
My parents and brother were furious, calling me selfish. I got an ironic lecture about being fair. I don’t understand why my parents asked me to provide input and then got mad. Am I being bratty here?
—Take It All Just Leave Me Alone
Dear Take It All,
Your parents and brother shouldn’t be angry at you for expressing an opinion they solicited, and it sounds like they’re more worked up over the fact that you think your brother should inherit less. I generally think it puts a lot of strain on family relationships if parents try to compensate for disparate outcomes for their children by distributing inheritances unequally, but there are sometimes reasons to do it that outweigh that risk. It’s clear from their reaction to your suggestion that it probably would not help your sibling relationship if they chose to take your advice. (Though, leaving the inheritance up to your brother’s decisions also wouldn’t help your relationship. They should be aiming for an even split, that isn’t dependent on your brother’s good will.)
You need to decide what that risk means to you. If you manage to guilt your parents into a 30/70 split and it ruins your relationship with your brother, would that be worth it? It would be nice if your brother just agreed with you that you should get more to compensate for the disparities but he obviously doesn’t. So, I think you can anticipate the consequences of that actually happening.
Personally, I wouldn’t compare your situation to your brother’s. No good can come of that. Even if you were in a similar financial situation, that sort of scorekeeping is unhealthy for all parties. If you feel that your parents paid more attention to your brother growing up, demanding more of the inheritance is not going to make that resentment go away. So, is it worth the 20 percent more you’re asking for? Only you can decide (assuming you get your parents on board), but potential family acrimony is something that’s hard to quantify. It may end up costing you more than that 20 percent.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’ve spent 30 years working in an extremely high-stress but high-paying industry. I’ve dialed things back in the last decade since I met and married my spouse. I’ve absolutely had it, and am eager to retire. I’ve made enough to be able to do so—but whether I can do so completely worry-free or only a little too close for comfort depends on my wife. She works in a competitive but low-paying industry. Her job has required us to move around. Over the past five years, relative to simply having stayed put in our original city and house, the moves and attendant renovations (mostly based on her preferences) have set us back, conservatively, $1.5 million. Now, we’ve moved to a high-tax state, where the incremental income tax on my investment income is a multiple of her salary and the public schools don’t work well for our kids (the way they did in our prior city). What’s the protocol here? Do I have to simply accept that I need to keep working in order to keep my wife working? Or is it appropriate to say that one spouse should not have to defer retirement to essentially fund the other spouse’s job?
—Honey, I Can’t Afford Your Job
Dear Honey, I Can’t Afford Your Job,
This kind of dilemma cuts both ways. You believe you can’t afford to subsidize your wife’s job; she believes she can’t afford to subsidize your retirement. As with every major issue in marriage, some compromise is required here.
You need to work with a financial planner to determine exactly where you need to be financially to feel secure about retirement. And once you have a number, you’re both going to have to make sacrifices to get there. Maybe it means you retire a few years later, but earlier than you would if you kept going down this path. Your wife may have to consider working in a market where the cost of living is cheaper. Figuring out where these potential inflection points are is a matter of sitting down together and determining what your ideal priorities are, and in what order. Maybe schools are the most important thing and that means you stay where you are with kids in private school and your wife looks for a job that utilizes her skills but pays better. Maybe you agree that she’ll work for a certain number of years and then you both commit to making retirement happen, on time, for you. Maybe you pick up part-time work in your field and that gives you a bit of security. (High-paying, high-stress industries tend to be a good market for independent consulting.)
In any case, you don’t want to frame this to your wife as an either/or choice, because it isn’t. You need a solution that works well enough for both of you, even if it is not the perfect scenario for either of you. If not, one of you will be resentful about being forced down one path solely to benefit the other’s long-term plans.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m one of four children and the only one without children of my own. My parents are upper middle class, and thanks to hard work and smart choices, likely have a net worth of high seven figures. They do not discuss specific numbers or share specific plans, but I suspect that their net worth will grow over the 15-20 years they likely have left and also that they will bequeath disproportionately large percentages to their grandchildren—I get the impression that’s their preference, and their children (my generation) are all established and have done well. I also suspect it will be in form of trusts—they’re financially smart, have legal and financial advisors, and recognize that some control measures are appropriate.
However, I am personally opposed to receiving any inheritance or having any of my future children receive any inheritance from them. I have seen (with my extended family, friends, and the internet) inheritances poison relationships. I also believe that supervised assistance in life can be helpful, but cash gifts in death (even in trusts) can be wasteful at best and dangerous at worst—especially when given to the young (I’m in my 40s, any children of mine would probably be young on receipt of any inheritance).
Years ago I asked to be disinherited but was explicitly denied. That’s their choice and I can’t directly change it. But if I have children, which I hope to in the near future, I feel even more strongly about my position and think I can influence them—specifically by linking disinheritance to family time (I’m independent and my family is geographically scattered, I could just not travel or enable visits if they won’t at least compromise on this).
Is there a best way to first request disinheritance again, and then to ensure it was genuinely granted (and would remain so)? For the latter, I think it’s possible my parents would agree, even update a will to reflect it, and then simply get a new will, knowing there’s nothing I could do about it after they pass. Or is there another approach I’m not considering that could help balance my concerns with my parent’s desires?
—Insistent on Nothing
Dear Insistent on Nothing,
I don’t think you have to convince your parents of anything. If they choose to leave you money against your will, you can always redirect it to an organization or cause you think is deserving and it will have the same effect. There’s really no need to try to back your parents into a corner by threatening to withhold visits. The fallout from that could be direr than you anticipate.
I think it’s fine to bring the issue up again and make your desires known. But if your real goal is to prevent any kind of corruption of your theoretical future children, it’s better to address that issue with good parenting. Not everyone who receives an inheritance is harmed by it and it can be very helpful if you or your children end up with unanticipated needs (medical or otherwise).
More Advice From Slate
We have two adorable grandchildren, 4 and 6, on the other side of the country. Their parents, our son and daughter-in-law, are struggling with debt and living in a one-bedroom apartment. The financial problems are related to their own bad decisions and to serious medical problems, which are mostly resolved but may recur. Our son works remotely, but he needs to be at work, not caring for high-energy rambunctious kids who get very loud and excited playing video games or watching TV. Our daughter-in-law just got a job that involves a lot of overnight travel. They have decided that the way to get ahead financially is to give up their apartment and move in with us for three months this summer. They would save on rent and child care. At first we were thrilled.