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How to avoid fighting about your family inheritance

Inheritance
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There is a spiritual attitude you can use to approach money matters in the family.

Does faith make a difference when it comes to divvying up the inheritance? Brother Jean Emmanuel Ena explores the spiritual dimension of inheritance and offers advice on learning how to share in a fair manner.

Why do you say an inheritance is a time for “balancing accounts”?

The execution of an inheritance often happens at a moment when we are questioning things—it is a moment of family crisis. It is the moment to “balance the accounts.” What have my parents left me? What will I take and what will I reject, other than material things? What we inherit is more than material things—it also concerns culture, our mentality, and our faith.

Another important question: In what way do you possess these things? We see money as material security but, in fact, what we want is emotional security. People often identify with what they have, not with who they are: “The more I have, the more I am. A rich person is someone who has more than I do.” So you can never truly say: “I’m rich!” And lastly, we can ask ourselves about the kind of relationship we have with our siblings. 

What is a just and fair attitude toward parents and brothers and sisters?

First, you need to put the relationship into the Lord’s hands: “In my case, did I not dare tell my parents the truth because I was waiting for the inheritance? Or was I totally sincere, no matter how much I thought it would put my inheritance at risk?”

Some have the “perfect boarding-school child” syndrome—they’ve never had a true adolescent crisis because they always tried to cohere to their parent’s image. They’ve never taken an adult stance. They always did what they were told: never talk about money, never get angry, always “compromise” … Often, the inheritance makes their false identity shatter, and it is their partner who suffers for it because this isn’t the same person they married.

In terms of your relationship with your brothers and sisters, it is a good idea to ask yourself: “What kind of relationship do I have with them? Do I depend on them, dominate them, compete with them? If I present my siblings to the Lord, that will make it possible to purify the relationships and get them on the right track.”

Is all conflict bad?

An inheritance brings the real state of a family to light, beyond surface appearances, falsities and shallow politeness. I knew a rich family of practicing Catholics in which the inheritance brought out an authentic spiritual upheaval between the members, provoking quite an identity crisis. They had to ask themselves what their real values were and what they wanted to transmit to their children. Sometimes a crisis like this can be a positive thing, because it brings you to question the very way you live, to become aware of the value that you give to material security. An inheritance can really stir things up!

Does the parable of the prodigal son shed any light on this issue?

The younger son demands his inheritance, as if he were declaring his father dead: his relationship with his father is already deformed. And since he feels guilty, he thinks that he no longer rightly belongs in the family; but family ties do not disappear—the true inheritance is the father/son relationship. Regarding the older son, he situates himself relative to his father like an employee. It is the syndrome of the model child. He says: “I serve you” and not “I love you, I am your son”. 

How can you have a good relationship with your sibling if the parental relationship is problematic? By asking God to come and restore it! The inheritance is an essential moment that affects death, being, and having, and your relationship with God and your family. I do see inheritances that go very smoothly when the family relationships are good. 

What would be the best way to approach this transmission?

If you are dealing with a well-to-do family, the inheritance is often understood as a question of possessions and material security. The parents sacrifice their whole lives for their children, and then they are gone, while the children would have preferred their presence. What hierarchy of values is being transmitted here? The parents have secured the material future for their children, but they have hindered them spiritually and emotionally. 

“Does my faith change how I think about my inheritance or do I basically have the same perspective as those who do not believe in God? If this is the case, my faith is not a fundamental criteria for my life. The word of God goes first, even when my surroundings say otherwise.” In an inheritance you have to fight, of course, for justice, but with this question in mind: “How can I make these material goods I have received from my parents work for the good of all of us? Because if I harm the common good, I harm myself as well.”

What do the Scriptures say about this?

The people of Israel are only the caretakers of the Promised Land. We, in the same way, are not owners, we are caretakers. All things belong to God, be it material goods or spiritual goods, intellectual or physical. We are not the source of these things—that source is external and we are called on to make the inheritance come to fruition. 

There is always a tendency to idolize material possessions and grant them a place that, in fact, corresponds to God. If God is primary in our life, He will help us manage our possessions. Surely, He will ask us to explain how we have managed our goods, in respect to people. Have we conceded to selling our soul in order to leave our children a large inheritance? Is that a good inheritance? You have to clearly distinguish between sincerity and truth. 

Besides, the Second Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth” (Matthew 5:5), links mildness and inheritance. We don’t get it by grabbing, we get it by receiving. With Christ, we are co-inheritors of eternal life. The life we are engaged in here is not the only one!

Florence Brière-Loth

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