Money & Policy

The No. 1 Money Argument Among Adult Siblings

Why their parents' finances can lead to painful rifts

In recent years, my sister, Robin, and I helped our aging parents manage their finances before they died. My mother had dementia; my father needed assistance ensuring his bills were paid and not to buy books he would never read. Together, Robin and I arranged for joint Power of Attorney. Sure, we worried whether our parents would run out of money and could afford to stay in their modest New Jersey independent living apartment. We talked often about worst-case scenarios and what we’d do together if necessary. When the sad time came to clear out our parents’ apartment (as I wrote about in “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff), we did it without rancor.

I can’t remember a single time we fought over our parents’ money or any inheritance we might receive — which, in truth, would have been meager at best.

What Adult Siblings Fight Over Most

Turns out, according to a recent Ameriprise Financial Family Wealth Checkup study, many other brothers and sisters are just the opposite of Robin and me.

The survey of 2,700 Americans between age 25 and 70 (including more than 1,900 with siblings) discovered that although only 15 percent of siblings — and 13 percent of boomer siblings — have conflicts over money with their brothers or sisters, when they do fight over finances, it’s usually about their parents.

In Ameriprise’s survey, 68 percent of sibling money quarrels dealt with this. “It’s a topic that’s really important to people,” said Marcy Keckler, vice president of financial advice strategy at Ameriprise Financial.

Yet fighting over their money is exactly what the parents wouldn’t want.

“Parents are unlikely to want kids to fight about money or financial matters related to their parents,” said Keckler.

The Top 3 Sibling Money Fights

What exactly do adult siblings fight about when it comes to their parents’ finances? According to Ameriprise Financial, the top three topics are:

How an inheritance is divided (boomers are more likely than Millennials and Gen Xers to have conflicts over this)

Whether one sibling supports his or her parents more than the other siblings

Whether parents are being fair in their financial support of their children

One reason for these spats: 57 percent of siblings overall — and 64 percent of boomer siblings — approach financial situations different than their brothers and sisters, Ameriprise found. “That was surprising,” Keckler told me. It surprised me, too, since I’d have thought the sibs generally were raised with similar money values.

It’s how the siblings’ own lives have turned out financially that often leads to their money disagreements: 63 percent of those surveyed said they had very different asset levels than their brothers and sisters.

Make Time to Talk Things Out

The boomers Ameriprise spoke with were also far less likely to discuss finances with their siblings than Millennials or Gen Xers: 42 percent avoid the conversations vs. 27 percent of Millennials and 35 percent of Gen Xers.

“It’s really important for siblings to set aside time to talk about money and set past disagreements aside,” said Keckler. “Make sure everyone gets a voice.” You could do this at a family gathering or just set a date to do it.

If you and your sibs just can’t bring yourselves to have the talk and key financial issues about your parents need resolving, you might pull in a financial adviser to mediate and facilitate discussions. “Or you can use an adviser as a catalyst to start the conversation,” Keckler suggested.

Sharing the Responsibilities

Try not to argue with your brother or sister about who’s doing how much for your parents. It may be that one of you has fallen into the added responsibility due to geography or the amount of time the person has. If the financial assistance or supervision isn’t equal, find a way for the one of you who’s doing less to pitch in other ways.

Keckler told me that one important factor she and her three siblings have talked about “is how we can make sure the non-financial responsibilities of our parents aren’t falling disproportionately on the one who’s local.”

Ameriprise’s recommendation: Assign roles based on each person’s unique circumstance.

Avoiding Inheritance Blowups

Another suggestion: Try to prevent future grudges over an inheritance. Do this by having a conversation with your sibling and your parents about your mother’s and father’s hopes and plans regarding who’ll get what — and when and why.

Keckler said that Ameriprise’s research has found that “most parents want to leave an inheritance to their children or grandchildren, but most haven’t told their children what to expect.” The result: misaligned expectations.

If your parents aren’t comfortable talking about inheritances, ask them to write down their wishes and the rationale for them, as a companion document to a will. That way, the family will understand the parents’ thinking without any guessing.

A Final Tip to Fend Off Family Strife

“Siblings are often the longest relationships people have in their lives. You know your sibling longer than anyone else,” said Keckler. “It’s really important to come together and work together to care for, and support, your aging parents.”

RIchard Eisenberg, editor at Next Avenue wearing a suit jacket in front of a teal background.
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow him on Twitter.

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