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When One Adult Child Needs More Help Than Another

How to play favorites financially when you really must


As a parent, you may want to provide financial assistance to your adult children when they need it. But what if one faces more money woes than another?

Should you provide extra, periodic cash infusions or leave him or her more in your will? And if so, should you let the other sibling or siblings know?

Of course, there are no definitive answers to those questions. And playing financial favorites, even for a good reason, can have unintended consequences. “Families are complicated systems,” says Megan Ford, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia’s ASPIRE Clinic and president of the Financial Therapy Association. “And money inequality — perceived or otherwise — can introduce even further complexity, affecting relationships.”

That said, sometimes parents feel they have no choice. If you’re struggling with this issue, here is some savvy advice from experts that could be useful, provided as questions and answers:

It’s good to qualify assistance with boundaries and parameters that assist the child temporarily and do not cause undue burden on the parents' situation,

— Megan Ford, Financial Therapy Association

Is It Ever Fair to Help One Child More Than Another?

Yes. It’s understandable if you don’t want to see your grown child in a financial bind. Most often, Ford says, the reason parents offer financial support to an adult son or daughter is that he or she is struggling due to a job loss, divorce or the pursuit of a career path that’s meaningful, but not lucrative. Parents also may want to provide assistance to a child dealing with addiction or mental health issues. And ongoing support may be a given for parents whose adult children are disabled or have special needs.

Ford believes that most instances of financial inequality are a response to a particular situation and are not an expression of favoritism. Sometimes, the parents may not even be aware they’re giving unequal amounts to their children because their help is periodic and seems small each time.

Could Providing Regular Support to One Child Backfire?

Yes it can, if it results in him or her being unwilling to become self-supportive, posing a drain on your finances. This kind of enabling also may breed resentment in your other children who feel they’re being penalized for working hard or choosing a well-paying career while a sibling gets a free ride.

Take the case of Declan (not his real name) and his brother. Declan is a 50-year-old consultant who is married with two children. His older brother trained as a lawyer but never practiced, and instead worked in college administration before losing his job at 52. Because his wife stayed home with their children, his parents stepped in to cover some of their bills. But he also stayed out of the workforce for three years, without taking even temp jobs. Meanwhile, Declan and his wife worked full-time to provide for their family.

Declan admits he’s sometimes angry that his parents have created a dynamic that “enables a grown man to not take responsibility for his own finances. It sends a terrible message.” Because his brother recently got a job at a local university, his parents are no longer helping out — a big relief to Declan, who’s concerned that his parents curtailed their own desires and needs at a time in their lives when they should be treating themselves.

What Declan’s parents should have done, experts say, is set limits on how much they were willing to give their other son and for how long. “It’s good to qualify assistance with some boundaries and parameters that assist the child temporarily and also do not cause undue burden on the parents’ situation,” Ford says. “It’s important to establish these very early on and set a precedent in the beginning, so everyone is on the same page.”

What’s the Best Way to Leave More to One Child in My Will?

As soon as possible, make your reason for treating your children differently in your will clear to all your grown kids.

Perhaps you shelled out a lot more in college tuition for your other kids. Maybe this child has a special-needs toddler. Or maybe you just want to enable this particular child to live the comfortable life that his or her more ambitious or fortunate siblings have.

It’s your money and your choice, but experts agree that it’s important to avoid surprises upon your death. As Ford puts it: “After [you’re] gone, the unintended consequences of not discussing this with the family prior is risking misunderstandings, turmoil and divide among siblings — in extreme cases, for even years or generations afterwards.”

What if the Siblings Are Angry That I’ve Given More to One?

You don’t want to spend years deflecting criticism from children who feel they’re getting the short end of the stick. If they can’t accept your decision, Ford suggests, it may be time for family members to visit a financial therapist who can help sort out emotions from dollars.

“Financial therapists can help people think, feel and behave differently with money as a way to improve overall well being,” she says. “The structure of this process will look different for each family and the financial therapist would be useful in helping the prospective clients decide who should attend [sessions] and be involved.”

Consider the possibility that any complaints from your more financially secure children may stem from a deeper hurt. “There is often bad blood between siblings,” observes John Schapiro, an estate lawyer and partner at the Kleinbard law firm in Philadelphia. “So it’s common to have real disputes and resentment over unequal — or supposedly unequal —treatment of siblings and their children, even when objectively any difference is relatively trivial. In general, I think that’s an indication of pre-existing difficulties in the sibling relationships.”

Adult children bearing old grudges may make accusations of favoritism that go back decades (think The Smothers Brothers), Schapiro says.For example: “Mom and Dad always gave you whatever you wanted. Remember when you got to have a sleepover for your 12th birthday and I didn’t?”

Or the kids not receiving extra assistance may refuse to consider any reasonable accommodations or settlement terms that you or the therapist suggests.

“There’s no magic way to make those problems vanish,” Schapiro says. “That’s a situation where it really helps to have lawyers most of the time, because they are pretty good at separating out legitimate economic issues from emotional ones.”

An astute lawyer will find a way to get all parties to talk to each other without yelling and steer clients away from self-destructive strategies.

How Can I Unite My Family?

Try pointing out that everyone will be better off if no one has to worry about a sibling needing money in his or her old age.

Schapiro’s own family tale illustrates this. After beginning his career and buying a house, the only financial help his parents gave him (and his wife) was a small loan to cover closing costs. One sister became an investment manager with a high income and never needed assistance. The other sister chose a much lower-paying career as an order-book official on a stock exchange. Burned out, she returned to live with her parents in her thirties and enrolled in med school at 37. Her parents didn’t pay the total cost of that tuition, but subsidized her expenses for about 20 years.

Schapiro’s parents were open about their financial support. And because he and his other sister were well off (and all three had a good relationship), they applauded their parents’ efforts.

“We felt that when our parents died, our sister would become our problem,” he explains. “So we definitely wanted our parents to nudge her onto a sustainable path. Any resources they used to make her financially independent were well spent as far as we were concerned.” Today, that sister is a physician, fully financially independent.

When the parents died several years ago, their estate was split three ways. “That was more than fine with us,” says Schapiro.

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