Parental Discretion Advised

They raised you, loved you and returning the favor is a continual process. For adults with mature and aging parents, financial health is as important to them as physical health. And, in the world of extended families, people living longer and age-old sibling birth order patterns, the older set needs us to watch out for them more than ever. Here’s how Austinite author Dee Covey and her family solved its own challenges. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

“Y’all weren’t exaggerating,” said my fiancé, as we walked into the glassed living room of the birthday girl’s 1956 ranch house, perched the side of a mountain overlooking the Pacific in Three Arch Bay, California, just south of Laguna Beach. “I just love the fog in the morning, too,” the black-sweatered 87-year-old, my mother, responded. The back door was open and one glance at the soggy New York Times, under the driftwood next to her old plaid Thermos that confirmed her morning spent on the deck.

As the youngest of three daughters, I cannot remember (or imagine) life without being able to walk up the steep hill in a damp sandy swimsuit or watching the panoramic sunset at my grandmother’s home, or “Mimi’s house” as we call it. Vista de Catalina was originally bought by my odd yet fascinating maternal grandparents, when Laguna Beach was a remote and somewhat sleepy seaside village best known for its Festival of the Arts. Mimi was a kooky vegetarian painter from Oregon; my father, Crawford, a conservative globe-trotting engineer for an irrigation firm. They did not have a clue about each other, yet south Laguna’s exclusive Three Arch Bay community was the perfect place to park their life together.

Mimi’s house comes with a private cove, a view of Catalina Island, and all of our best childhood memories and will become a big chunk of the inheritance for the three Covey girls. The beach house could also become ground zero for sibling rivalry, according to Francine Russo, author of They’re Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy  “Parents can help their children avoid future wars by telling them what’s in their will.” The problem is, what will? All I’ve ever heard was, “Don’t worry about it. When I die everything will be left to you girls equally,” and “leave me a list of stuff you want and I’ll decide.”

Holy smokes, what does that mean? There are piles of papers in plastic bins, and the last will I heard about was a one-pager written when I was in diapers. In my typically WASP family, sharing information about money simply isn’t done. Nice people with manners don’t talk about the green stuff, or death. Messy emotions are to be avoided, too. My mother is still independent and takes care of her own affairs, and I always felt like it was her business, not mine. Or is it? There are, after all, subsequent generations of my sister’s and my children to consider, but honestly, the thought of having to deal with my older siblings had given me shivers for years, and I was ambivalent about the house subject myself. It’s an irreplaceable property, and I assumed the baby sister would be expected to go-along-to-get-along with whatever they wanted anyway –which (I assumed) would be to keep it, and I’d pass my share along to my grown daughter to keep the peace.

When my (now) husband Jim, a family-oriented CFO, shared the cautionary tale of his family’s Texas ranch, I realized how complicated things could get for my daughter and I swallowed my reticence and asked for a family meeting while we were visiting for the birthday. I was shocked when my mother and sisters not only agreed, but were eager to meet because California has major inheritance taxes, which could easily force a sale if there is a faulty estate plan — or none at all. “Inheriting property is tricky for families everywhere,” said Brooke Hardie, an Austin family and trust lawyer at Saunders, Norval, Nichols & Atkins, in a casual conversation over lunch. “When siblings are involved, everyone has a different emotional set point and economic reality. It’s never just about the money.”

Then Hardie had an excellent suggestion “Hopefully you can discuss issues with your mom and each other, and she can come to some her together. These decisions. Offer to help her hire a California lawyer, and if she agrees, accompany talks are always a little bumpy, but when the paperwork is done, it’s done, and trust me, your relationships with your sisters will be so much easier later on if everyone knows what to expect.”

We all have different feelings, attachment and assets, but I was prepared, for once, to articulate my general position, calmly, and let my mother decide what she wanted for us. I had no idea what any of them thought, and I thought there would be a lot pressure to keep Vista de Catalina for the kids and grandkids as her legacy. Little did I know that my mother had fretted about the house for years, and welcomed the conversation the next day. She magically lost years and reverted back to her days as a take-charge professional, chairing a meeting with an agenda, while my sister Wendy took voluminous notes. I was surprised to learn that our mother did have a living trust (but no will), and my sisters’ points of view were far different than I had anticipated. Apparently this “deadline” forced everyone to really think about the “what-ifs”, including end of life, burial (and jewelry) issues, but also the impact of survivorship on our spouses and kids.

It was a powerful day – our husbands beat it to other locations – with some tears and heated moments, but our Barb was a strong loving mother and together we got the framework done, and we will help our mother hire that attorney. When I think about my parents and their sort, they really were the Greatest Generation, and by having the courage to power through a talk about the end game, our Mother has given us the greatest inheritance of all. Peace.