To judge by the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, sibling rivalry has been going on as long as there have been siblings. Although this rivalry usually stops short of murder and mayhem, there’s no question that money can heighten tensions between brothers, not to mention between brother and sister or sister and sister.
Witness an account I recently read of a grudge match between two brothers, heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. One was a rambunctious bon vivant who settled in Paris; the other a hard-working, sedate businessman from upstate New York. Both were avid art collectors with impeccable taste. They competed fiercely for Impressionist and modern masterpieces, gloating whenever they bested each other. Meeting in a lawyer’s office to sort out some money matters, they got into a fistfight and didn’t speak to each other for the rest of their lives. What a horrible waste–but what a familiar story!
Sibling relationships can be harmonious, acrimonious, cooperative, competitive, warm, cold, intensely connected, or distant and disengaged. If you had one or more brothers or sisters, you probably learned your place in relation to them. See if any of these phrases apply to you:
- “I was the smart one, but not pretty”
- “I was the good-looking one, but stupid”
- “My sister was the rebel; I was the goody-two-shoes”
- “I was the ‘bad kid’; my brother was Mr. Perfect”
Some sibs are raised to cooperate and look after each other, while others are pitted against each other (“Why can’t you be as sensible as your brother?”). Mix in each child’s individual personality and temperament, and the potential for complications is almost limitless.
These family scripts and roles often pollute sibling relationships well into adulthood. As the fortunes of the individuals involved grow and change, their connections can undergo dramatic ups and downs.
In Money Matters, Siblings Aren’t Clones
Siblings may share chromosomes, but often have completely different money personalities. You’ve probably noticed divergent money attitudes and behaviors among sibs in your own family.
“Since I am in the business of helping others understand their money issues, I often look at my own children,” says Chrisanne Cubby, a Money-Path financial life planning coach with Temenos Inc. of Watertown, Connecticut. She noticed early on that the oldest and youngest of her four children were savers like her, while the middle two took after their spender father. Now in their 20s, the middle siblings have significant credit card balances. The oldest and youngest are building up savings and have no debt.
Like Chrisanne’s children, some kids follow the example of one or both parents in the way they manage their finances. Others may rebel against a parent’s moneystyle–becoming a spender, for example, in reaction to parental frugality. A few seem to develop an independent money personality without being influenced by anyone else. Taking stock of the differences among siblings in your own family can give you more tolerance and compassion for the range of money behaviors your clients display.
When Mom and Dad Play Favorites
Siblings’ early perceptions that “Mom loved me best” or “Dad never thought I’d amount to anything” may be reinforced by preferential treatment by parents. For instance, spender children may end up being repeatedly bailed out by Mom and Dad, while sibs who are savers struggle on without any financial aid. If this inequity continues, it may not only create tremendous hostility between the siblings but also make the “neglected” child resent the parents’ favoritism.
The worst-case scenario is when unfair treatment occurs after Dad’s or Mom’s death. At that point, there’s no recourse for a child whose feelings have been badly hurt by the terms of the parent’s will.
A PBS program some time ago chronicled a lopsided legacy involving three siblings: a doctor, a police officer, and a teacher. Their parents left the bulk of their money to the last two, figuring that the more affluent doctor didn’t need it. Unfortunately, they never told their offspring what they were doing, or why. When the will was made public after their deaths, the son who was a doctor felt hurt, angry, and rejected. It seemed to him that his parents had punished him for his success.
If these parents had explained their plans to each child individually, they could have greatly reduced the potential for later resentment between the siblings. If the doctor son had heard them describe their pride in his accomplishments and their concern for his less wealthy sibs, it might not have upset him so much to receive a smaller inheritance than the others.
Jealousy between siblings can also arise when parents try to make up for previous unequal treatment. Ted Klontz, Ph.D., president of Onsite Workshops in Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee, tells of a client couple who were being emotionally blackmailed by their youngest son, a drug addict who had run away from home and was living with another addict. Guilt-tripping his parents with the argument that, “You didn’t pay for college, so you owe me,” he had squeezed a good deal of cash out of them. After working with Ted, the parents realized that they were feeling guilty about having given less of themselves to this son than to their other children. The money they were heaping on him was actually reparations for their past neglect. Meanwhile, the addict’s three siblings were now jostling in line for similar handouts.
Klontz helped this couple get honest with themselves and their children. In family meetings, the four siblings learned exactly how much money their parents planned to leave them. The amount was the same for each, and each could choose whether to receive it now or later. As the youngest child learns to disengage himself from financial dependence, Klontz’s clients no longer have to worry that their children will bankrupt them.
The Importance of Fairness
I’m not recommending that parents should always treat their children with absolute financial equality. Granted, this is an admirable goal, but there are cases where “equal” is not fair. For example, if one child has a severe mental or physical disability, the parents will obviously need to spend more on that child’s needs.
David Drucker, an Albuquerque financial planner and principal of Drucker Knowledge Systems, told me about a self-made millionaire who consulted him for planning help. One of the man’s three children badly needed financial assistance because of a serious medical condition that affected his ability to work. But the father, who had come from humble beginnings, strongly believed that children should learn to make it on their own. He also wanted to treat his three kids equally. As a result, he refused to favor the physically handicapped son.
In a situation like this, it could be helpful for an advisor to partner with a therapist or counselor and invite the siblings and their father into the office to talk about this. The dad’s opinion about withholding financial help from his offspring could be explored and even challenged.
He might discover that the two children who didn’t need assistance as desperately would encourage him to make an exception for the brother who was more in need. I honestly believe that most siblings will accept an inequality like this. But it’s crucial for family members to share their thoughts and feelings with one another, and learn to empathize with each other’s situation. Whatever you can do to encourage this continuing dialogue will ultimately benefit your clients, and your own bond with them.
Raised to Fight
Sometimes you may encounter siblings who have been encouraged by a parent to battle each other. The most egregious example I’ve heard was that of a difficult, bitter man who kept all his money in his own name and refused to make a will. When someone pointed out how unfair this was to his wife and two children, he growled, “Let ‘em fight over it when I’m gone.”
So much intense emotion can be generated in families–often rooted in the past and exacerbated by more recent actions and decisions–that it is crucial for advisors to help family members learn to communicate clearly and to make simple, well-understood decisions while the parents are still alive. When siblings try to sort this out on their own, terrible rifts can arise.
The mother of a friend of mine constantly pitted her against her sister. My friend attempted to appease her mom’s critical nature by pleasing her any way she could. The other daughter reacted to their mother’s temperament by moving as far away as possible. When the mother’s health failed, my friend became her caregiver and eventually inherited her mom’s house. Though she felt she deserved this legacy, the lifelong distrust instilled by her mother made her expect that her sister would be angry and resentful about it. As a result, she was fearful of her sister’s attempts to contact her. Years after their mother’s death, the unacknowledged subject of the house remained a source of distance between the two siblings.
Here’s another case where a financial professional who is a therapeutic educator, or working in tandem with a therapist or counselor, might have helped this mother and her two daughters create a solution that everyone could accept with more serenity.
Help for Battling Brothers (or Sisters)
When tension-prone siblings have a hard time finding common ground on an issue, invite them to revisit the old memories that may be at the root of their difficulty. You could ask them to write out their answers to the following questions at home. Or if you’re working with a therapy professional, the siblings may be comfortable talking through their responses with you both.
1. What are your most positive memories involving you and your sibling?
2. What are your most painful, upsetting memories involving you and your sibling?
3. Are there unforgiven hurts that still bother you from the past? If so, what are they?
4. What could your sibling do or say to salve these wounds or heal them completely? What would a heartfelt apology or act of contrition look like or sound like?
5. Do you have any regrets about how you treated your sibling? If so, what could you do to make amends? Be specific.
6. If you could have any kind of a relationship with your sibling, what would it look like, feel like, be like?
7. Describe some aspect of your sibling’s personality or character that you really appreciate.
Who Will Take Care of Mom?
Speaking of caregiving, we all know situations where one child in the family bears most of the burden of care for an elderly parent. The caregiver often resents his or her siblings, whose lives aren’t impacted by this heavy responsibility. As old folks live longer and longer, you can expect to see more consequences of this in your office.
If it’s impractical for the other sibs to contribute time in equal measure, Rick Kahler, president of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, South Dakota, suggests a creative solution: the parent(s), the other siblings, or both could pay the sibling who is the primary caregiver. After all, the family would otherwise have to hire someone to provide this service. (Home health aides now earn an average of $19 an hour, according to MetLife research.) This “salary” could make the caregiving sibling feel more valued by the rest of the family. It may also relieve some guilt for the siblings who don’t live nearby, or for other reasons haven’t been able to take on a share of the burden.
Staying Connected Despite Income Differences
Conflicts often arise when clients are financially better off than their siblings. Ted Klontz described to me a situation involving a client who had prospered despite coming from a poor family where the kids were taught that accumulating wealth was immoral. The client had to work hard to overcome this ingrained belief so he could enjoy his hard-earned money. But when he tried to share his good fortune with his siblings in the form of gifts or tickets to expensive events, they rebuffed his generosity (which may have been tinged with “Wealth is bad” guilt).
With Klontz’s help, this client learned that he had to give himself enough self-validation to keep on living his own lifestyle in serenity. He needed to give up the fantasy that his siblings would ever accept and approve of his success.
I think unsolicited gifts to less affluent siblings are just fine, if offered with grace (“It would really make me happy if we could take this trip together”) and without strings attached. When a brother or sister is truly in need, it can be praiseworthy for their more affluent sibling to help out. But there needs to be ample communication between the siblings about where the giver is coming from and how the givee feels about accepting the gift. (It’s never okay to force a gift upon an unwilling recipient.)
There are other situations where family members have developed a parasitical dependence, never repaid loans, and strained marriages by begging for funds that their sibling and her spouse had put aside for their own future security. In these cases, I recommend open communication and a gradual weaning away from such enabling “help.”
When a client asks about lending money to a family member, I know many financial advisors would say, “Don’t do it!” I advise my own clients that if push comes to shove, make the money a gift–and never part with more than you can afford to lose. In this respect, life is like an in-flight emergency: you have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
Suing a Sibling
Dealing with a sibling isn’t like dealing with an acquaintance, or even a friend. You can say no to a buddy and still (in many cases) retain the friendship. But there’s a special relationship between members of a birth family. Even in adulthood, older siblings often feel they need to look after younger sisters or brothers. A younger sibling may feel indebted to an older one who took care of her earlier.
A client of mine, whom I’ll call Jack, once asked me to help resolve his inner conflict about suing his brother. Born and raised in the Midwest, Jack had moved east and only returned home now and then to see his parents, brothers and sisters, and friends. On one of his visits home, he learned that his younger brother, Steve, had taken over their aging parents’ financial affairs.
It had always been Jack’s understanding that everything would be shared equally among the five siblings, so he was surprised at the secrecy that now prevailed. Finally his sister Sally told him that Steve had somehow managed to acquire certain mineral rights that paid $1,500 a month, while the other children received mineral rights worth about $35 a month. Sally also revealed that when she challenged Steve about this disparity in front of their parents, Steve agreed to split the $1,500 with her. None of the other siblings was told about this agreement.
When Jack got over his stupefaction, he confronted Steve and Sally. Both of them insisted that they were only honoring their parents’ wishes, and that nothing was going to change their minds.
When Jack consulted me, he was trying to decide whether or not to take his brother to court in order to regain what was rightfully his. His older sister, Julie, had warned him that that she would bear the brunt of family conflict and pain if he took legal action, since she lived near Steve while Jack lived a thousand miles away.
I helped Jack become aware that if he sued Steve, he might cause a rift that would end up destroying their connection and stressing other family relationships. He might win the lawsuit and end up with more money, but lose his brother.
In the years since then, Jack has thanked me several times for helping him decide to let go of his anger and leave the matter alone. He believes it was the right decision for him, and for the good of the family as well.
Bringing Siblings Together Again
Many sibling conflicts can only be resolved with the involvement of a third party or an event that transcends old grudges. In the case of the sewing-machine dynasty that I mentioned earlier, granddaughters of the two feuding brothers eventually met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during an exhibition of the family’s acquisitions. Finding common ground, they are reforging connections between the estranged branches of the family.
Imagine the years of spite and anguish that might have been avoided if the two brothers had had a good family therapist, working in tandem with a therapeutically sensitive financial advisor to bridge their differences!
In a similar vein, a friend of mine found herself at odds with her younger sister over a house they had jointly inherited from an aunt. My friend, who had been close to the older woman during her final years, felt it was her aunt’s desire to keep the house in the family. The sister, living farther away, disagreed. The intensity of emotions brought on a break between the sisters.
The outside event that changed everything was a cancer scare for the younger sister. Her older sibling rushed to be with her, and they rekindled their relationship during the tense days of waiting for test results. Fortunately, the scare proved to be groundless. To preserve the harmony whose value they both now recognized, my friend agreed to put their aunt’s house on the market.
Of course, disputing siblings can’t rely on the intervention of a deus ex machina, whether in the form of a suspicious lump or an art exhibition, to help them reconcile. That’s where you come in. By providing a safe place and a respectful process to air highly charged thoughts and feelings, you may be able to help all parties sit down together and brainstorm creative solutions to a difficult issue. Your presence (perhaps combined with that of a therapist or counselor) will breathe air into a closed family system, allowing problems to be resolved much sooner with less destructive fallout.
A Sister’s Story
When my father was on his deathbed, he spent his last evening with my brother Stu and me, in a sweet communion that is still fresh in my mind five years later. Early the next morning he called his caregiver, Bea, to his side and told her how proud he was of his two children. Then he asked her in a troubled voice, “What should I do about these two rings I wear? One is worth much more than the other. How can I decide which one to give to which child?” Bea said, “Your kids have always worked things out. They’ll figure out this one, too.” My father smiled and said, “You’re right.” A little while later he died singing–he “sang himself out.”
I don’t even remember now how we divided the rings. But as co-heirs, we cooperated fully with each other–working together, for example, to coordinate withdrawals from annuities that we had jointly inherited.
I know Stu and I are extremely lucky. We had our moments–well, make that “years”–of distance when we were younger and developing our adult identities. But as grownups, we have made the effort to communicate honestly and compassionately. That gave me confidence that we would be able to resolve any disagreements arising from my father’s legacy.
One of the most important tasks in our lives is to make sure our relationship continues to be close and satisfying. We’ll both work hard to make that happen. After all, we’re family.
Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore. She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors, therapists, and coaches. E-mail Olivia at firstname.lastname@example.org.