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?