Ways for Siblings to Divide an Inheritance

The issue of inheritance has been one which for countless centuries has plagued us with tales of tragedy, triumph, happiness and heartbreak. It has been a drama that has been immortalised in play, and has captivated the public mind for millennia.

Undoubtedly, the world has changed, and yet despite the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, as we move into the current digital age the quandary of inheritance between siblings is one which has still not been fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, in particular the occasional sibling who finds himself with an unwanted herd of sheep.

Just as our outlook and approach to life has gradually changed and progressed, so too have the ways of inheritance division among siblings undergone a slow yet steady transition. From Roman times up until the seventeenth century, there is evidence that the favoured method of division was that the first and eldest (living) child inherited the entirety of any estate, funds or riches belonging to the family.

Whilst this method of ‘primogeniture’ has certainly proved the one which has lasted the ravages of time, it is understandable that in modern society many believe this to be an unfair system. After all, a child does not decide when they should be born, and as we move into the 21st century, inheritance appears to have become more and more dependent on worth rather than birth.

Perhaps the question of inheritance is one where experience does not necessarily lead to wisdom. Certainly, although scholars have pored over journals and histories galore, there is no set method for dealing with this issue. The reason why is plain. Each family is different, not only in the composition of the brothers and sisters, but more importantly in their different characters, temperaments and abilities.

It is becoming more obvious that the trend with regard to inheritance is that the parents of the children decide how best to split the family fortune. In any case, parents know their children best and as such know what and how to divide property, business and wealth between them. Whilst most families tend to favour splitting their wealth into equal portions, it is definitely the case that exceptions do exist.

It is ironic to note that in the seventeenth century, the very notion of splitting the inheritance was viewed, if not with horror, then with a definite sense of unease. Who can overlook William Shakespeare’s unforgettable tragedy of King Lear where the kingdom is plunged into chaos due to Lear’s unwise decision to split his kingdom among his three daughters rather than investing the inheritance to a sole heir, or Barry Levinson’s Rain Man.

Nonetheless, parental guidance in this matter makes the assumption that the parents have carefully considered their will and have left specific instructions on how and what they want divided amongst their children. Unfortunately, in cases of unexpected demise, this is often not the case, and it is often these types of inheritances that prove the most tense, emotionally-taut and sometimes even violent; not only for those directly involved, but also for friends and families (This anxiety, however, rarely extends to the recently deceased). In these cases, much must be done to try and keep the division of the inheritance as pain-free, smooth and balanced as possible.

The first step is to achieving this is understanding. It is important for not only the siblings themselves, but also those involved in the division of possessions to have an understanding of what an emotionally wrought experience the division itself is. The siblings must recognize, at least on a superficial level, how their brothers and sisters are feeling, and act and confer appropriately. Similarly, lawyers, estate planners and others involved in the legalities of the case should appreciate how the division of any inheritance can be a nerve racking experience, especially when combined with the added emotional strain of a death in the family.

After understanding comes communication and negotiation. It is, if not imperative, then definitely favourable for all siblings to communicate with one another to work out a solution that suits everyone. Some of the difficulties involved in dividing an inheritance are to do with the sheer scope of the task coupled with the emotional turmoil left by the passage of a loved one. A common complaint is “how can we put a price to what our memories hold dear? How can we divide something that for us has always remained sacrosanct?”

Let us take a case example that occurs quite frequently in rural areas around the world.

A farmer and his wife die unexpectedly with a will stipulating that their property of 30 acres is to be divided equally amongst their three children. Whilst the immediate solution would be to split the land into three 10 acre blocks, more careful consideration must be taken before acting. Do different areas have the same value? What are the logistics of the land and its geography? Most importantly, which parts does each of the three children want most?

A common solution to all these questions is to sell the land in question and divide the assets equally amongst the three inheritors. However, this solution again raises questions. What if a child wants to keep his portion of the farm? What if no good offer is made for the property? Negotiation is at the heart of all civilization, and indeed, it is imperative to have ample negotiation between the three children before dividing the property.

In many cases, however, it is not just property and its value which must be divided, but also many household items or objects such as paintings and pianos which have to be split between siblings. Also, it is not unusual for a will simply to state that everything must be divided equally, rather than delving into the specifics of what item goes to whom. Often, it is even innocuous household items such as a lamp, couch or television which hold the most sentimental value and thus the most desirability for the siblings. In such cases, it is important to be able to divide in a balanced and sensitive manner as to who gets to obtain each item.

One way of doing this which has grown in popularity in the US is the family online lottery’. In this, each child is allocated a certain number of credits which can then be used to bid for items that are out for auction. Often, this bidding is anonymous, and this is as much to ensure a level playing field as to prevent the introduction (or in many cases perhaps perpetuation) of sibling rivalry.

Whichever method is chosen to divide family belongings, perhaps it must be stressed that regardless of the outcome, the items normally remain in the family. Understanding between family members is the key to ensuring that the division process is as smooth as possible. Any division process is by its nature a sensitive process, and it is through appreciating the emotion of the moment that one can proceed calmly and rationally.

In many cases, forethought is not only important, but necessary to enable a smooth division of family property, goods and items. Where parents have discussed who desires what in the event of their eventual death, siblings often have a far greater maturity when the time comes. This is perhaps due to a sense of certainty as each child knows who will have ownership of what. It is important to realise that these events are typically stressful, often confusing, and any sense of surety is welcome for family members of one recently deceased.

Whilst you may think that dividing an inheritance seems like an easy, structured and stress-free process, this is definitely not the case. Whilst lawyers and estate planners try their best to structure the proceedings in a logical framework with a solid foundation, in many cases, the division process is very flexible. This is in itself not necessarily a bad thing, with siblings confiding, negotiating and consulting together. Indeed, the division must be structured yet still flexible enough to enable those involved a sense of freedom and independence.

In conclusion, there are many ways for siblings to divide an inheritance. Throughout the ages, countless families have faced this issue, and many more have struggled through feeling sad, angry and confused. Whilst the notions of primogeniture no longer seem to apply to modern society, it is important to realise that the key to ensuring a smooth division is forethought and certainty. Each sibling should have a firm idea in their mind of who has the right to what item or grant of land, and more importantly a strong idea of their responsibilities as family members.

Whilst forethought on the part of both parents and siblings, and approaching the issue calmly and rationally appear to be the key answers to resolving the division of the inheritance with a degree of sensitivity, this solution is admittedly far from complete.

Perhaps the only true solution will arrive when we stop having more than one baby.