Inheriting money from parents not always simple

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

NEW YORK -- It's a topic that makes some baby boomers feel squeamish but fills others with anticipation: inheriting their parents' estates.

No matter how they view coming into money when their parents die, adult children need to be prepared. Financial advisers say many boomers make serious errors when contemplating an inheritance or actually receiving one, sometimes overestimating the size of the estate or mishandling an unexpected windfall.

Susan Bradley, a financial planner with the Sudden Money Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said problems often result from the reluctance of many parents to speak frankly with children about their wealth or lack of it.

One of Bradley's clients was shocked after her parents died to learn she was coming into a great deal of money. A flood of questions and mixed emotions ensued.

''She couldn't figure out why the parents hadn't told them (their children) more,'' Bradley said. ''They could have helped them out with a lot of things over time. She felt a lot of anger, a lot of betrayal.'' Parents who don't talk to their children can have a variety of reasons. Some are uncomfortable about dealing with their mortality. And money is a touchy subject in many families, apt to create anger and disappointment.

Some parents are ashamed to let their children know how badly they've handled money.

''Sometimes they act like they have it (a lot of money), and spend like they have it, but when they pass away, the children find out there's as much debt'' as there are assets, Bradley said. The children are surprised when they end up with little or nothing.

But many parents do sit down with their children to talk about their estates or plan to do so.

Pro golfer Tommy Aaron, who's 65, says he expects to have that talk with his children. ''You should sit down and talk to them so they have a clear understanding of this,'' he said.

Aaron's children won't be strangers to such a discussion -- his father-in-law, who's in his 80s, has already let them know what to expect from his estate. ''They've got a pretty correct idea that they'll come into X number of dollars from him,'' said Aaron, who lives in Gainesville, Ga.

Jeffrey Condon, an attorney in Santa Monica, Calif., advises families to hold what he calls inheritance meetings with an attorney to get all the information about an estate and how the parents plan to structure it out in the open.

That provides ''an opportunity to educate the children,'' said Condon, co-author of ''Beyond The Grave,'' a book advising parents on how to structure their estates. ''It's an opportunity for the children to discuss and deal with any concerns the children may have.''

With or without that exchange, boomers need to be cautious when contemplating the possibility of an inheritance. Those who are counting on receiving a lot of money should remember that many things can go wrong in life.

A catastrophic illness or long-term stay in a nursing home can wipe out parents' assets. So can an unexpected lawsuit. Estate taxes and levies on Individual Retirement Accounts must be paid. And of course, the vagaries of the stock market and other investments can sharply reduce the value of an estate.

Moreover, ''people are living longer and longer,'' said Jeffrey Neeck, a senior financial planner with Strategies for Wealth Creation & Protection in New York. ''Parents and grandparents are going to need a tremendous amount of money to live the lifestyle they would like to live.''

But none of those possibilities stop some boomers from factoring a big inheritance into their financial planning, expecting their parents' estates to fund their children's college education, for example. That's a dangerous miscalculation, advisers say.

Neeck recalled a client who was reluctant to take out life insurance because his wife's family had a lot of money. He believed they would take care of his children if necessary. When Neeck asked the client, '''Do they know they're part of your financial plan?', he was all of a sudden backpedaling.''

Moreover, parents might include in their wills provisions requiring children to fulfill educational or economic goals before they can inherit, or they might create trusts that distribute money in specific amounts at specific times.

Even when a huge amount of cash arrives unexpectedly, there can be problems. Many people might be inclined to take the money and use it on big-ticket dream purchases.

''If they make quick decisions without thinking of the long-term impact, the house and the boat and the stuff they buy today might mean they need to keep working till they're 70,'' said Bradley of the Sudden Money Institute.

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