Dividing an Inheritance with Siblings

Good old sibling rivalries. They can take on many forms when kids are young:

“Why is his curfew 11 o’clock, but mine is 10 o’clock?”

“That’s my doll, go play with your own!”

“I’m a better basketball player than you ever were!”

As people get older, many of these childhood competitions and jealousies tend to fade. Sure, people forgive and forget. And, more importantly, we mature. Many people even get closer to their siblings as they get older.

All is good, right?

Sure…..that is, until they have to deal with dividing up an estate.

Sometimes, when adult siblings have to deal with such situations, everything is handled well. It’s all fine, and people pull together and move forward in life. Other times, it’s a little different. I have a friend who recently had to deal with the very unfortunate situation of his mom passing away.  In a situation like this, money is the last thing that most people are thinking about. Including for my friend.

He told me the story about how in the aftermath, he and his brother and sister assumed that the modest inheritance would be divided by 3 – in thirds for each of them, as documented in the will.

Then, when going through their mother’s home, they found a handwritten note from their mom, indicating that she wanted everything divided into fourths. Who, besides the 3 adult siblings, would get the other fourth? It would be my friend’s young nephew.

My friend’s sister had spoken up at the time, and said that since this was their mom’s wish, based on the handwritten note they all found, they should follow her wishes and divide it into fourths. This meant ignoring the actual will, which indicated it would be divided in thirds. At the time, my friend and his brother – the two other siblings involved – quickly agreed. They were in a mournful state of mind and didn’t have the inclination to even discuss things.

Fast forward months later, after their mom’s home was sold. As everything was to be distributed, my friend’s brother – the middle sibling – apparently had time to think about things a bit. He then sent an email out indicating that he thought everything should be divided in to thirds – as stated in the will.

Needless to say, my friend was caught in the middle. Does he align with his sister and support the idea that things would be divided by 4 – to account for his nephew? It would follow his mom’s handwritten note, but not the earlier, formalized will. The will allocated 1/3 for my friend, instead of 1/4 per the note. He wasn’t sure how to handle this.

Question #1: If you were in my friend’s situation, which position would you support, and how would you handle it? Please answer based on what you know up to now.

Continuing the story, my friend’s sister was livid. She thought that her brother (not my friend) should show more kindness to his nephew (her son), and be fine with him getting 25% of the estate. According to her, this was her mom’s wish based on the note. Plus, in her view, she has more needs than her brothers since she has a young child, so they should consider that when dividing the estate.

Question #2: What do you think of my friend’s sister’s view on this?  Please answer based on what you know up to now.

So, the sister then sent an email to her brothers. She indicated that while their mother’s note indicated that it should be divided by 4, they could divide by 3 per the will. Additionally, if  they wanted to make a contribution to their nephew’s (her son’s) 529 account, they were welcome to do so.

Question #3: What would you do if you were my friend’s brother, who took the initial stand of 1/3?  Please answer based on what you know up to now.

Interesting situation!

Here’s the outcome. My friend’s brother sent a note back, saying that he was OK with it being divided 28% per sibling (84% total for the 3 of them), then 16% for the nephew. The sister went ahead and agreed to it. My friend, at that point, decided he would go with the two of them and get the whole thing over with. He didn’t want to continue this tension, and just wanted everything to be over and done with. He stated that he thought that these are the types of things that can impact family relationships, and he just wanted to avoid that.

I then asked him if his position would be different if it was, say, a multi-million dollar estate. He paused, and said, “well, um, you know…” I didn’t pursue it further, but his reaction told me that his response would have been much different in that case.

Money talks, doesn’t it? :)

Thankfully, all ended up OK here. Family is more important than material things.

What are your thoughts on this situation, consider the questions above?


  1. says

    I wish I knew the date on the letter! If it was right before her death and she didn’t have time to update the will, then I would say divide it in quarters.

    If the letter was older, I would wonder why in the world mom would do this. She had to know it would cause problems. I also wonder if there are any other nieces/nephews in the picture. (Gosh, I hope not.)

    I am going to spend every last dime and travel the world. Then my kids won’t have such concerns!! :)

    • Squirrelers says

      Everyday Tips – the letter was from a few years ago, written after the will. So, this is why the sister felt like it should be divided in quarters, besides her other reasons mentioned. Seems like sibling rivalry can reemerge later life:)

  2. says

    Luckily my family is really great when it comes to situations like this, however I know that any situation with a lot of money involved can cause tension and stress – I would have to side with the note even though the legal document may seem like the way to go at first.

    It was the mothers money to give away, and they should respect her wishes regardless of if she had time to get everything written up through a lawyer or not. I don’t think it would be the brothers place to say he doesn’t think the nephew should get it because it is x amount of dollars – whatever it is, it is period, again not his place to decide.

    This is assuming of course the letter came after the will and before her death.

    • Squirrelers says

      Kevin – yes, the letter did come after the will was written. I probably should have added that detail into the article. You’re lucky that your family is great when it comes to such situations.

    • Squirrelers says

      Money Cone – that seems to be the consensus here. I would agree, though I can see merit to the will holding and the idea that each new “family” (siblings’s new family unit) gets equal. I don’t know about the notion that the nephew deserves more. What I do think the bottom line, however, is that the mother clearly had wishes, so those should be honored. This appears to be a compromise that all could live with, so hopefully all is well that ends well!

  3. says

    Wow, dilemma. I probably would go with the hand written note, but try to compromise. They are family after all. Fortunately, my parents won’t have much to leave us 3 brothers. Michelle is the only child so that’s easy too. :)

  4. says

    Interesting dilemma. I can certainly understanding wanting to respect the mother’s wishes…but at the same time, why wasn’t it documented in the will. Another good reason to address family planning issues like this before it’s too late.

    • Squirrelers says

      CNC – yes, it should have been documented. However, with some folks that are older, the notion of The End isn’t easy to foresee or predict, so maybe something that someone will get around to doing never gets done. These things should be addressed ahead of time, no doubt about it – I agree.

  5. bogart says

    I think I’d be inclined to respect the note if I believed it to be genuine, as per MoneyCone’s comment. But beyond that, my understanding is that this wouldn’t actually be up to the family. With a modest estate it might not matter (problems might be solvable via gifts that wouldn’t trigger the gift tax, and/or the family could agree not to provide one of the two documents to the legal system), but legally, I think the estate would have to be “settled” following whatever took legal precedence in that state (in my state, handwritten signed wills are legal, so that might well be the note). With even a relatively modest estate that involved real estate (i.e. the deceased’s home) that could be a major, major hassle.

    • Squirrelers says

      bogart – interesting perspective, on the legal aspects of this. The estate in this case was modest, from what I was told. I don’t have all the specifics, as I didn’t ask and just mostly listened. I think the good thing in this case is that they have worked together at least enough to come up with an agreement, and avoided the big hassles that could have taken place.

  6. says

    Owww, this makes me cringe! I would do the 1/4’s and not because the sister ‘needed more’ (totally subjective!) but because it’s what the mom wanted.
    My one experience into dividing a family members estate did not go the best. I knew there would be tension so I opted to be the last to pick out personal items. Even with that when one family member found out what one of the items I took was she insisted that we ‘draw’ for it. I said ‘no thank you’ and handed her the item. It just wasn’t worth it!

    • Squirrelers says

      Molly – thanks for sharing your experience. It’s interesting how people react to such situations. I think it shows a lot about what’s truly important to them, across many dimensions.

  7. says

    I would go with the will. A handwritten note is fine, but it’s not formal. I can imagine a lot of situations where the mom wrote the note, but decided NOT to change the will. I write myself lots of notes… that doesn’t mean they should be written in stone. The note was not likely written immediately before the death, given they found it only when going through her things later. Thus, I actually do not think we can assume the note showed the mom’s “real” wishes, and the will was not. I think the will stands as what the mom really wanted, and despite her note, she never formalized the new wishes, so you cannot guess. THe reason for a will is to avoid the guessing, so that’s where you have to assume the wishes are written.

    • Squirrelers says

      Valerie, your comment is the first I have read yet that goes with the will….and actually, I thought there would be more that shared your view. While I like going with the mother’s wishes, I think you make excellent points about the intent of the mother when writing the note. I agree that people jot down notes all the time, but don’t mean them to be binding. I think in this case they took the note to reflect the mother’s wishes, but you do make a really good point.

  8. says

    This is a hard choice. Hard to tell what kind of old scores and tension bubble to the surface at times like these. The executor has a thankless task, and “need” has got nothing to do with it. I would have gone with the last formal will, but even a handwritten note has to be respected in many states.

    • Squirrelers says

      101centavos – hard choice indeed. Yep, old tensions can bubble up. Further, old generalizations about character, from childhood, can emerge during these times. Perhaps some of those are true, and remain unchanged? In any way, stripping away the “need” argument, it appears that the compromise was made anyway.

  9. says

    The best place to be in this situation is financially secure. If you can take care of your own needs, it’s easier not to be counting on someone else’s money to fund your own lifestyle. It’s amazing how many people are banking on their parent’s inheritance. It just makes me sick.

    I’d probably want to just follow what the will says 1/3 but tell my sister that I’d give the difference to the nephew’s 529. What she does with the other brother is up to those two to figure out. If it was a multi-million dollar estate, then I’d still do the same thing, but I guess I’d max the 529 (which I think is $350K?).

    • Squirrelers says

      First Gen – To your point, that’s the great thing about taking individual responsibility for oneself: it’s actually easier on a person in the long run. You can count on yourself more than anyone else, as you have more control over yourself than on anyone else. That said, if an inheritance comes, and it’s legally yours, take it.

  10. says

    This sounds like a situation that I do not want to have to deal with. Everything I’ve read pertaining to stuff like this says to wait a while before things are decided so that everyone has time to calm down, collect themselves, etc.
    You never mentioned if the handwritten note had a date on it, I’m curious to know which was the most current.
    As for my take, I’d side with your friend – Do anything to make the arguing stop.

    • Squirrelers says

      Jeff – yep, seems like a situation that wouldn’t be fun at all. The biggest thing is that people have to deal with this when already emotionally upset about a loss, struggling to accept and deal with that, etc. As for the date on the note – it was written after the will was written, from what I was told.

  11. says

    That’s very interested. Obviously the sister benefits from the 1/4th note since the nephew mentioned in the note is her son. I think that when it comes to an inheritance, it’s best to split everything equally to avoid tension between siblings. However, it’s also best to be financially independent and not have to worry about how much inheritance you receive or don’t receive.

    • Squirrelers says

      Little House – I think that your last comment is especially sound advice – work toward financial independence. A lot of stress can be removed or prevented by this, including that which is generated by inheritance situations. People come first!

  12. says

    Interesting dilemma…nearly all of us know families who were irreparably divided because of an inheritance squabble. The lesson for me is to make sure MY wishes are well documented: clearly, fairly and legally. And to clearly communicate those wishes to my beneficiaries. The better the communication now, the fewer surprises later.

  13. says

    Well, this is why I hope to never be caught in such a situation. I think you have to go with what the will says, but the brothers could show empathy based on the fact that there was a handwritten note, and especially considering that they agreed to it in the beginning. At least a compromise was reached which isn’t so bad. As long as everyone still talks to each other and there are no hard feelings… these can be the worst situations to deal with.,

  14. says

    I’m not surprised that things were reconsidered after everyone had time to think about it. That’s why estate quibbles can drag on so long – the memory of the deceased becomes less apparent, and the money more important.

    I think the siblings in this story came up with a good compromise.

  15. says

    Wow… what a difficult thing for a family to do… I’ve witnessed more families split over money than religion, politics, or whatever else. I think the situation was fair.

    • Squirrelers says

      Doctor STock – yes, it’s a tough thing for a family to go through. I think in this case, it worked out pretty well all things considered.

  16. says

    My heart would go with the 1/4 because that is the mom’s wish. But my logic would go with the will. I have difficulty understanding why people would want to “reward” one of their child because he or she had a child also. I mean, is that really what defines their accomplishment (I love children, so it’s not because I don’t like them, I just don’t understand that)? That being said, if it what’s the mom wanted, than go for it! Still, I repeat it again again, fellows out there : Talk about your will or your last wishes to the one concerned. I am sure that if the mom talked about it, things would have been much clearer for all of them. Maybe if the explication of giving to the nephew was explained by the mom herself, I would have understand her reasons and respect them.

    • Squirrelers says

      DoNotWait – I agree that it’s important to maintain communication on such issues, and keep everyone on the same page. It’s a difficult discussion, but it needs to happen.

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