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One of my mentors died a few weeks ago. I thought very much about Gene’s influence on me and the legacy he left on the credit union industry. As I get older, I also think about the financial legacy the deceased leaves and what beneficiaries do with the money. Gene left a wife, who had her own career and retirement plan, and two adult children who also have thriving careers. Based on what I knew about how Gene handled money, his wife will not have to worry. In this case, the family patriarch is gone, but it is likely the family will continue to thrive and live happily ever after.

But how often is there a happy ending when a loved one dies? Sadly, it’s few and far between. The fights between beneficiaries and those who think they are beneficiaries of their deceased family’s assets reminds me of a recurring promotion by some minor league baseball teams that hire a helicopter to drop money onto the field and have the fans pick up as much of the currency as they can.

We’ve experienced many situations on a Monday morning in which someone, usually not a member, comes into our office and says their Uncle Charlie, whom they assume is a member, died over the weekend but promised on his death bed he could have the muscle car in the garage and all of Uncle Charlie’s savings. In order to protect our members’ money, we don’t go on the word of an individual, especially one we don’t know. Based on the situation, we wait for instructions from the surviving trustee, executor of the estate, or the probate court. It’s not a game of whoever shows up first gets the money.

The sad reality is that families break apart because of money. In some cases, family members accuse the trustee or executor, many times a sibling, of not distributing the money evenly. When it comes to non-liquid assets such as jewelry and furniture, some of the deep-seeded resentment family members have toward each other come to the surface. And for what? Because Mom allegedly said 35 years ago I could have the living room table with the chocolate stains on it? Is a chunk of wood that Mom paid $10 for in 1953 worth throwing away a lifetime relationship?

The other disturbing issue is that when beneficiaries get their share, the money is gone almost instantly. In the eyes of many, Mom and Dad’s money is free, so why not spend it on a powerboat with the four-stroke outboard engine and notched transom design? When I think of a financial legacy, I think sending my grandchildren to college or making a down payment on their first house, and, if there is anything left over, donate to a favorite charity or foundation.

While death is inevitable, a little bit of upheaval, even in the best of families, is expected. The best thing we can leave to our children is not money and things but self-sufficiency. The great dancer Isadora Duncan once said, “The finest inheritance you can give to a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet.”

David M. Green
(925) 335-3802