A pair of brothers were very close when they were children, always playing together and competing. Then one went on to make millions as a professional athlete, while the other earned a much more modest income. Their relationship as adults has never been the same.
Keeping up with the Joneses is especially fraught when the Joneses are your siblings. Familial financial gaps are almost impossible to ignore— siblings are reminded of them every time they visit each other’s homes or discuss vacation or retirement plans. Socializing together can be challenging. The lower-earning siblings might not be able to afford expensive outings and may experience nagging feelings of failure whenever they’re around their wealthier brothers and sisters. After all, they shared much the same DNA and upbringing, yet somehow they fell behind.
Many sibling financial gaps have been growing wider of late. Already well-off siblings who had money in the recently red-hot real estate and stock markets saw their net worths soar, while those who didn’t fell further and further behind… and some professions prospered during the pandemic while others suffered.
Here’s how families can overcome this challenge…
WHAT WEALTHY SIBLINGS CAN DO
In some cultures, wealthy siblings are expected to support less-well-off family members…but in many American families, finances are an uncomfortable topic. Financially successful family members must tread carefully to avoid straining sibling relationships—even when they’re offering assistance.
Offer to loan money rather than give it outright—but don’t expect repayment. Handouts can elevate the giver above the recipient. Loans carry less of a stigma—they’re financial agreements between two responsible parties. But: If you’re lending money to a family member, be aware going in that many intrafamily loans are seldom repaid in full. Solution: Refer to the financial assistance you provide to a sibling as a loan…but tell yourself that you’re making a gift and don’t get upset if you are never repaid.
Unfortunately, even if you don’t get upset about it, an unrepaid “loan” could strain your relationship with the recipient— he/she might avoid you out of fear you’ll request your money back or because he is uncomfortable about being unable to pay it back.
To reduce this risk: When the loan is made, specify a date in the relatively distant future when it should be paid back and/or when the subject of repayment will be discussed. That far-off repayment date should delay the recipients’ repayment anxieties. If that date arrives and the sibling can’t pay you back, you can reset the repayment date to a specific future date…reset repayment until the recipient can pay it back without it causing him any financial stress…or void the debt outright.
Alternative: Set up a trust fund. If you wish to provide ongoing support to a sibling, say, “I’m setting up a family trust fund for estate-planning purposes.” That will create less of a psychological divide than, “I’m going to give you money every year”—even though they are essentially the same thing. The fact that the money is distributed by a trust somehow makes it seem more like a financial-planning decision, not a handout. Creating a trust also makes it easier to set parameters about the amount to be given, when it will be given and under what circumstances, reducing uncertainty and uncomfortable requests for cash.
Offer to help nieces and nephews. Set up college funds for your sibling’s minor children…or buy those kids things that their parents otherwise might have to purchase for them, such as cars or computers. Ask your sibling’s permission before making these gifts. Gifts to nieces and nephews are less likely to create a psychological divide between you and your siblings than gifts directly to those siblings—it feels normal and natural for people to provide financial assistance to younger generations.
Suggest a financially diverse range of options for outings. Socializing together can be a minefield for siblings of vastly different means. Should the wealthy sibling treat everyone to expensive outings…or will this make other siblings uncomfortable and/or lead them to spring for similar gatherings that they can’t afford? Should siblings of lesser financial means offer to split the check even if the pricey outing wasn’t their idea and doesn’t fit their budget?
One solution: When the group wants to socialize together, the well-off sibling could propose a range of options with greatly varied price points, then let lesswell- off siblings make the final choice. Example: If the plan is to get together for dinner, options might include a favorite fine-dining restaurant…a favorite affordable restaurant…and staying home and cooking or ordering in food. If a less-well-off sibling repeatedly picks the high-end option, then the wealthy sibling can pick up the check if he/she is comfortable with this arrangement. If not, he can stop including the high-end option among the choices.
WHAT LESS-WELL-OFF SIBLINGS CAN DO
Provide nonfinancial assistance to family members. Your wealthy sibling might be able to contribute to the family in ways that you cannot—treating you and other family members to fancy outings, perhaps, or paying for a parent’s long-term care. You can even out the psychological ledger to a degree by providing other types of assistance to the family—regularly offer to assist with home repairs or maintenance… drop off delicious homemade baked goods…or provide valuable help in some other area of personal expertise. As long as you’re making significant contributions, the fact that you cannot match your sibling’s financial contributions will seem less glaring.
Ask yourself, Am I satisfied? People tend to measure themselves against those around them. Example: You might feel poor living in an 8,000-square-foot mansion if your neighbors live in 20,000-square-foot palaces. But that’s just your mind playing tricks on you—the fact that your neighbors’ homes are massive does not make yours any smaller.
Likewise, your sibling’s financial successes do not mean that you’re a financial failure. Have you earned a nice living? Do you have enough to pay your bills? Have you raised a family and saved for the future? Then you’re a financial success. Silently and repeatedly remind yourself of this when you spend time around your wealthy sibling.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
This really is a problem between grown siblings, but those siblings’ parents can have a major impact.
Equal love…but potentially unequal inheritances. Dividing up assets evenly between children in an estate plan isn’t always the best option. If one child is well-off financially and the other is struggling, giving more to the struggling child will increase the overall positive impact your estate has on your descendants. Such uneven distributions are becoming more common— but parents who do this must take care to avoid giving the impression that the differing inheritances reflect different amounts of affection.
One solution is to divide up your assets evenly in your estate plan—but also give money to your less-well-off child while you’re still alive, so that he ends up with more even though the estate plan doesn’t reflect this.
A second option is to leave the lesswell- off child extra in the estate plan, but explain to the wealthier child that you are doing this because his brother or sister needs the money more, not because you love this child more. To reduce the odds that the wealthier child will take this poorly, also express your admiration for his financial success… note that you’re leaving him nonfinancial gifts in the estate, such as family heirlooms…and, if appropriate, that you’re naming this wealthier child executor of your estate as a sign of respect.
Divide your time evenly. Yes, the logical choice might be to let your wealthier child host the holiday gathering every year, because his house has room for everyone. And sure, your wealthier child’s anecdotes about extravagant travels and highpowered business dealings might be engrossing. But parents still must take care to split their schedule and attention evenly between their kids. This might seem silly—your kids are now adults who should understand that it’s only rational to gather in the biggest house that has the most guest rooms. But when it comes to matters of parental attention, adult children can be like little kids, often hyper-alert to any sign that a parent is favoring one child over the other… and perceived favoritism could drive a wedge between them.