How can I address the sexism in my parents' estate planning endeavors?
August 31, 2014 9:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I address the sexism in my parents' estate planning endeavors without seeming like I'm a money-hungry vulture? My parents were born in the 40s and recently they have been working to set up a revocable trust. They have two children, me and my sister. My sister is unmarried and I have two preschool/elementary-aged daughters myself.

Prior to their planning sessions, my parents had 100+ acres of Iowa farmland that they sold to my male cousin for $3,500/acre, essentially giving him a $300,000+ gift in equity. (The neighboring farm sold for $10,000/acre a few months later, but I'm being conservative.) They did not include my female cousin in this arrangement. Traditionally, in many rural areas the boy does get the land, but I was surprised and taken aback that my parents still believed this outdated notion. My cousin got the land refinanced and re-appraised and bought several hundred more acres using the equity as a down payment. They said that they wanted him to have a good start in life (he's 24). Still, it stung that they gave this equity to him while excluding me, my sister, and my female cousin (sister of the cousin that bought the land).

My parents also approached me and stated that they wanted to make a list of family heirlooms to pass down. I expressed interested in my dad's truck, a 50s classic that he works on for several hours every night. He recently converted it to an automatic transmission and I was assuming that he did this so that my sister and I could eventually drive it. My shook his head and laughed and said that he was going to give the truck to another male cousin, saying that I would have "no practical use for it." He then went on to say that he had the same plans for his tools -- that they would just sit in my garage unused, after all.

For the record, I use the tools more than my husband in my family. I felt that he was belittling my skills and capabilities. I also don't think that what they are doing to fair or reasonable.

I'm not greedy. But I find the dismissal of my strengths and capabilities very hurtful. How can I discuss this them without seeming predatory and still remaining strong? I don't want to seem like I'm a money-hungry vulture after their money, I'm not. But I feel like I revert back to a shy little child often when they talk to me.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I get your feelings about your parents selling to your cousin, but what's done is done. Is it possible that the reason your dad wants to give him the truck and tools as well is that he has a farm (I assume you do not but disregard if you do) and can truly make more practical use of them? As for why he offered him the land, that's hard to comment in without knowing more about your cousin, you, your sister and your female cousin... Is it possible that you three women are all set in successful careers and your cousin needed a little help? Just throwing it out there as a possibility, like I said I feel like we need more information.

As far as approaching your parents, I think you just need to respond in the moment. Like when your dad says you would have no practical use for his truck, tell him why he's wrong or why you don't think that matters. But really, their stuff is theirs to with as they want.

As an aside, I think noting that you thought your dad made the truck automatic transmission so that you and your sister could drive it actually comes off as pretty sexist - why couldn't you learn to drive stick?
posted by amro at 9:53 AM on August 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

From the outside, it looks to me like you are conflating three distinct issues that, before unpacking, you collectively label as sexism because they have that aspect in common. They are your parents':

  • disposition of family assets outside of the core members;
  • failure to know you as a person, and;
  • ability to cause you to revert to shy child mode.

  • The last is the only one of these you can change, but it will help with the middle which in turn will help with the first. That said, in my own life I must continually remind myself that my (biased against me because I don't have children) relative's assets are her's to do with as she likes. It's a discipline.
    posted by carmicha at 9:55 AM on August 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

    Maybe you can set them up with an estate planner? Perhaps they didn't understand the huge gift they gave your cousin? I imagine they didn't want to deny you and your sister of money.
    posted by k8t at 9:59 AM on August 31, 2014

    PS. Farming relatives of mine really want their land to remain in agricultural use and family farming is an important value to them. Offspring who don't farm--male or female--sometimes get short shrift as a result but usually there are compensating arrangements. Do your parents have an estate planner?
    posted by carmicha at 10:01 AM on August 31, 2014 [17 favorites]

    This sucks.

    It's possible there's nothing you can do about it.

    If anything has a chance of helping, I guess it will be a series of low stakes, low intensity conversations that are framed more as you and your parents getting to know each other than as concept/values-based disagreements or referring directly to inheritances.

    For example, could you invite your dad to work on a tools project with you? Or ask if you could work on one with him? Sharing that time with him would be a nice way to let him see you and internalize the image of you using tools. You could ask him about projects he worked on with his parents.

    I think you should focus more on understanding why your parents are making the choices they are making than on trying to change them. Ask them questions about what it was like when their parents and grandparents died, how family legacies were handled, what was it like for them, what was it like for their sisters and brothers. It might get them incidentally thinking about things from a broader framework, and it should help them feel heard and respected enough to create room for them to start to hear you. If nothing changes, at least it could help you have more perspective on your parents' actions that could help you live with them with maybe more rue but less angst.

    This is an approach lifted from Harriet Lerner's work on dealing with family conflicts and intergenerational issues and I strongly recommend reading her work, which has a great feminist foundation to it.
    posted by Salamandrous at 10:05 AM on August 31, 2014 [9 favorites]

    It's their stuff, and it's fundamentally their choice: if you want to create new patterns from one generation to the next, then you do it with your own stuff.

    But: I think you have the right to push back against your parents' dismissal of your own capabilities and interests. If they're going to be seeking out a second cousin, once removed boy-kin to get the roto-tiller, because of all the durned girls in the family tree, then maybe you need to sit them down for a Downton Abbey marathon?

    It feels like there's some deep backstory here in terms of how they think of their daughters' lives in relation to the land and their home. Heirlooms and inherited assets are an expression of continuity, and they can be a kind of yoke -- as anyone who's inherited furniture that's completely inappropriate for their own homes can attest. The lives of women born to parents born in the 40s represents change in the broad sense: a far greater ability to establish independent careers and independent lives. If your life and your sister's life represent more in the way of change than continuity, then that might be a factor, and what you need to work out is how comfortable your parents are with that in their old age, and how much you and your sister want to reinforce the continuity that still exists.
    posted by holgate at 10:15 AM on August 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

    The good thing is that your parents seem to be fairly open about what they are doing with their estate. A lot of people don't communicate and leave behind a potential bomb to explode and leave hard feelings among their heirs. You have the option of talking to your father to see what his reasoning is. I agree that this is hard to do without it sounding to your parents like you are predominantly interested in the money. I would approach it making it very clear that you want to know their thinking rather than trying to change it. For instance, telling them you think it is sexist at the outset is not going to help. However if your father is making his plans based on incorrect assumptions, you can correct those assumptions factually.

    Estate planners really encourage people to share their plans and their reasoning with family members. Hopefully you can get your parents on board with the idea. People always say not to depend on an inheritance or let expectations of an inheritance affect relationships but the fact is that the idea of being disinherited or partially disinherited is really troublesome in terms of the relationship if you have no idea of the reasons.
    posted by BibiRose at 10:16 AM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

    by approaching you to talk about the heirlooms, your parents have given you an opening to broach this topic in a serious and honest way.

    this is one of those situations where "tell them what you just told us" is really the best way to address the topic. I know that may be hard but you express yourself very well here, and I don't think there's any better way for you to articulate your concern.

    your parents are probably free to dispose of their . estate as they see fit. but even if it is uncomfortable to say this stuff, just telling them exactly what you told us, even if it's in a faltering and awkward way, is probably the best way to address it.
    posted by jayder at 10:20 AM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

    I agree, be honest with your folks. Don't accuse them of sexism, just tell them what you would like. It's perfectly okay to say, "Dad, my fondest memories are of you working on the truck. It would mean a lot to me if I could have it. I'd love to share it with Gloria and we can have girls nights where we go out and show it off. As for the tools, I'd love to have them. I'm really into woodworking and I do most of the repairs on the house. Having more tools would mean that I could get into more complex projects.

    If you explain WHY you want these things, I suspect that your folks would be more than happy to leave them to you. They may think that you're just asking for random crap.

    Now ME, I have the opposite problem, my Dad keeps sending me shit I don't want!
    posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:28 AM on August 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

    But I find the dismissal of my strengths and capabilities very hurtful.

    Tell your parents this. Use those exact words - "mom, dad, I find your dismissal of my strengths and capabilities very hurtful. I'm good at X and Y and I did [thing] and [other thing] last summer when [thing] happened. It seems like you don't take me seriously, but when Male Cousin does something, he gets praised for it."

    It's not about the tools or the land, so don't mention them. When your parents bring them up, which the probably will during the conversation, steer it back to the fact that your dad said something dismissive of you and didn't take you seriously.

    Unless you actually are annoyed that someone got something that you were expecting. That's something for you to work on yourself, though, rather than telling your parents that they think they're wrong to do what they want with their own property.

    It certainly does seem sexist to me, if they reason they gave the stuff to the male cousin because he's male. Wanting to give someone a good start in life does seem to be coming from a good place, though. If you want to put the cat amongst the pigeons, you could ask your parents what they're going to do for you that's equivalent to what they did for your cousin.
    posted by Solomon at 10:49 AM on August 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

    For "the tools", there's a lot of different types of tools! Maybe you could talk more specifically about which sorts of tools you would want and how special it would be to you to use dad's tools when you are doing X thing.

    When you and he talk about "the tools", you might not even be referring to the same set of items. For instance, you might be thinking of a smaller set of household tools and he might be including things like a welder that's big enough to have it's own trailer. Just an example, of course exactly what he has will be different.

    Using the words for specific tools and talking about how you would really like to have the tap and die set, the biscuit joiner, etc. and would think of your dad when you were doing X sorts of things, but that you aren't interested things like the rabbit turd hone or the metal lathe, might be more helpful for getting the point across that you would indeed use these things. (obviously this might be totally opposite your actual interests, theses are just random examples since you didn't mention any specific tools in your question)

    Also, subtly add in more about what YOU do with tools to your day-to-day conversations with your parents. If you fixed something or built something, and your husband helped a bit, talk about it as something you did rather than something "we" did.

    If you have any special memories of using those tools with either of your parents talk with them about that.

    If you aren't in a great place financially you should consider how much of that to share with your parents.

    Some things you didn't mention in your question that might be factors in their decision: how close you live to your parents and how often you see them compared to your cousin, whether you have any interest in farming, whether your parents ran a farm themselves. Is it possible that your parents feel that this male cousin is going to be "taking care of them" in some way when they are older?

    I feel like I revert back to a shy little child often when they talk to me

    Personally I feel like my parents gained a great deal of respect for my capabilities when they were able to see me solving problems and dealing with situations, especially things that they did not know how to deal with themselves. If you have any sort of specialized knowledge that they might be able to see in action somehow, especially if it's something you can use to help them or work on a project together, make that happen.
    posted by yohko at 11:12 AM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

    Prior to their planning sessions, my parents had 100+ acres of Iowa farmland that they sold to my male cousin for $3,500/acre, essentially giving him a $300,000+ gift in equity. (The neighboring farm sold for $10,000/acre a few months later, but I'm being conservative.)

    You don't mention if they were aware that this was the case.

    Also, you don't mention if they have been paid for the land or are holding a note.

    If there was any element of coercion or deception on the cousin's part in acquiring the land, or if this happens in the process of paying for the land, you may have a different problem.

    If they hold a note for the land, their estate is more likely to be distributed according to their wishes later on if the person who would have to pay the note (or their direct friends or relatives) isn't the person who's sorting through all of their paperwork when the time comes, IME.

    (Edited to add: I realize that's not the question you asked, but their relationship with your cousin might have some bearing on how they are treating you)
    posted by yohko at 11:19 AM on August 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

    Traditionally, in many rural areas the boy does get the land, but I was surprised and taken aback that my parents still believed this outdated notion.

    Maybe that is because traditionally, that is who has farmed the land. As carmicha noted, it is very possible that they want the Iowa farmland to be used as farmland. Is your cousin a farmer? Does he intend to farm the land? He might, especially in light of the fact that he has recently acquired a few hundred more acres. Would you and your sister farm the land if it were deeded to you? It may very well be the case that your parents thought or knew that your cousin would most likely use the farmland in the way they saw fit. (and maybe the truck would get used on the farm) I wouldn't be surprised if the grant of the farmland to your cousin was conditioned on its continued use as farmland. A grant of land can be conditioned on conditions that survive the grantor - it is quite common, in fact. And, if those conditions are not maintained, the grant is revocable, so you might want to keep an eye on how the property is used if this is the case.

    Ultimately, it's your parents' property to do with as they please. But, I do not think it is out of line to discuss the substantial land grant with them. I think Ruthless Bunny's advised approach is very good.
    posted by Tanizaki at 11:44 AM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

    I'm an estate planner. It's often very important to people that business or farming assets continue to be used as such.

    The common approach is to try to equalize the shares of others through other assets. You haven't said what the total value of the estate is, so it's impossible to tell whether you will get a meaningful amount ex-farmland.
    posted by jpe at 1:10 PM on August 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

    The farming thing is very common, still, even between brothers and sisters. You're actually doing better than the worse case scenario, in that some of the value has been converted to cash which will presumably roll into their estate to be split between you and your sister, rather than given to a brother bypassing the two of you entirely. This is something that will only be resolved generationally. Personally, I'd let the money issue go, and instead take up their view of your capabilities as an adult using the advice
    posted by DarlingBri at 1:17 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

    Well, I understand that this advice may be very hard to take, but here it goes: let go of any sense of entitlement to any portion of your parents' estate. Assume they owe you nothing and will leave you nothing. Then when they do leave you something, you can feel a bit of gratitude rather than the resentment that so many adult children seem to feel when their parents die.

    Easier said than done, I'm sure. However, as someone whose parents are financially insolvent, I've watched with some mixture of confusion, horror, and awe as friends from better off families go completely off the rails when it comes to inheritance issues. I know so many cases where this issue has led to hard feelings between the child and the surviving parent and between siblings and the extended family. In many cases, relationships have been completely destroyed and good memories corrupted.

    One of the advantages of growing up with parents who are messed up financially is that I never had any expectation that I'd be left with anything except debt once my parents pass on. This is incredibly freeing in all sorts of ways: while I'm not going to get any sort of financial boost from their deaths, I also am not going to have to have my grief complicated by concerns about money, nor do I feel like I have to toe any sort of line to remain in their good graces and get my reward.

    If your parents are dismissive of you or show sexism in other ways, by all means address it directly with them. But I assure you that if you can somehow get over the sense of being entitled to some (fair) portion of your parents' estate, you will be so much happier.
    posted by girl flaneur at 2:04 PM on August 31, 2014 [19 favorites]

    I have to say, honestly, it does sound like you are hung up on the financial side of all this. Are you and your husband having financial difficulties right now? Maybe that's contributing to your frustration over the estate planning.

    Because you are looking at this all in a kinda weird way, honestly. Your parents are thinking about how their assets should be dispensed after they die. That's not necessarily about setting you or your sister up for life financially. It's also them thinking they want the things they have worked for over the years not to go to waste after they die.

    You are assuming sexism because they gave--actually sold cheaply--some farmland to a male cousin. To me, an outsider, just using the description you've provided, my reaction was that your parents deeded the land to the person they felt would actually use it. Now, maybe I am wrong and you just omitted the fact that you or your sister, or both of you, are farmers, but otherwise someone who would work the land would seem the obvious and most logical choice to turn the land over to.

    The financial windfall is likely just a combination of your parents giving a relative a bit of a break on the cost of the acreage because he's a relative and a currently strong real estate market; I doubt they made the deal with the sole purpose of making your cousin rich! As noted above, your cousin has since purchased more land rather than just cashing it in (as it honestly sounds like you would do if it had been deeded to you), so I can see why your parents might have made their choice with no sexism behind it at all.

    Similarly, your Dad may want his beloved, carefully maintained classic truck to go to someone who would use and appreciate it in the same way that he has. While you might drive it, would you care for it and cherish it in the same way?

    Even if you did drive the truck, too, I see that you say you and your husband have two kids in elementary school. I wouldn't think a classic 50's pickup truck would be very practical as a family car for you, given the limited seating for four people, let alone allowing for any booster seats you might have to fit inside.

    So, at best, the truck would be a spare car for you to use. Why would your a Dad enthusiastically hand his vintage truck over to you to just have sitting around as a spare vehicle? In fact, if I were you in your situation, I would probably not even think of the truck for myself. By all means, advocate for your single sister inheriting it, though, as she would almost certainly get more use out if it at least. Again though, if your sister isn't into classic automobiles, Dad might not want her o have his truck, either.

    Finally, the tools thing. You mention that you use more tools than your husband (kind of a weird way to look at it, because it's not very likely your parents would gift the tools to him, anyway, is it? The question is, would you use the tools as much as your parents? More than your sister, or cousins?) ). Does that mean you already have tools of your own? Maybe they think you don't need Any more. But if you would use the tools your parents have, maybe you should talk to your parents about leaving you those specific tools.
    posted by misha at 2:18 PM on August 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

    One other thought: you may just have a talk with them about their estate plan. That's something I encourage my clients to do so that they can discuss in advance with their heirs, discuss what will happen, set expectations, etc. Depending on how much they share, that will give you a better sense of whether this is something to be upset about or not.
    posted by jpe at 2:41 PM on August 31, 2014

    My dad explicitly left more to the son than the daughters, although that ended up backfiring in the legal wrangling. As someone who has lost family members over inheritance claims, I can tell you from bitter experience that the money is not worth it. We chose to walk away, painful knowing my children lost what their grandad intended for them, and that heirlooms are lost, but the family members who got the money are all messed up by it, paranoid and guilty and lonely. Unless you have something critical like medical bills, the money isn't worth it. The sexism stings less as time passes.

    The family tools are. I think saying specifically that you want certain tools to teach your daughters in time, talking to your dad about memories you have watching and learning from him, to pass in to your kids, that's a good conversation for you both.

    Make sure your sister is in the same page as you, sit down with her first to talk before your parents.
    posted by viggorlijah at 5:15 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

    Why would your Dad enthusiastically hand his vintage truck over to you to just have sitting around as a spare vehicle?

    Well, perhaps this is a truck that has always been "dad's truck" -- not just a working vehicle, but something closely tied to memories of father, childhood and origins.

    That's what needs to be teased out: what things do the parents look at in purely practical terms that the children have imbued with sentimental value? And there's nothing wrong with saying (if it's the case) that while the truck won't necessarily be put to everyday agricultural use if it goes to the daughters, it will keep their father's memory with them after he's gone, and that matters to them. And perhaps that's the impasse here: that the OP and her sister feel like they have to assert a purely practical claim for certain things, which makes it harder to compete against Cousin Bill, Cousin Phil and Second Cousin Gil, when the attachment isn't purely practical.

    It might be worth the OP asking her parents about what they inherited from their parents, to see what was passed down for practical use, versus what was of primarily sentimental value. Perhaps that generation's circumstances didn't leave much room for sentiment, but it'd be worth talking about that.
    posted by holgate at 5:22 PM on August 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

    My cousin got the land refinanced and re-appraised and bought several hundred more acres using the equity as a down payment. They said that they wanted him to have a good start in life (he's 24). Still, it stung that they gave this equity to him while excluding me, my sister, and my female cousin (sister of the cousin that bought the land).

    Is he farming the land? Had you had the opportunity, would you have farmed the land? Have you farmed in the past?

    I understand your dismay -- trust me (I'm an only child who is currently wrangling with my 80 year old mother about the sale of a farm property where I cannot currently live but which has been in the family for 5 generations and which I would prefer to continue to rent than to sell) but I think you are dismissing the use of the land as a very practical reason for having it be dispersed as it was.

    I feel like I revert back to a shy little child often when they talk to me.

    This is likely part of the problem. You need to way, firmly and directly, what your wishes are and then when they say "ah, no, that's silly" be prepared to make a case -- both an emotional and practical case for why your wishes won't let their possessions go to "waste".
    posted by anastasiav at 5:39 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

    How old are you and your sister vs. this male cousin?

    Are you guys farmers? Do you live in the immediate area where the land is? Would it be easy for either of you to shift your lives such that you could live there and work that land?

    My grandparents have a beautiful old house in the countryside surrounding my hometown. I did a lot of growing up in that house, and frankly would LOVE to be able to raise my own children there someday. However, the reality is that I live across the country from my hometown and have for my entire adult life. There are a few dozen acres of land attached, which I simply do not have the skills to work myself (nor the kind of income to hire someone to manage). My career doesn't lend itself to living on a big rambling chunk of land two hours from the nearest city.

    So if my grandparents leave the house to a male relative who lives nearby and has helped them maintain it over the years, I'm not exactly going to cry sexism.

    Re the truck and tools, why not just tell your dad that you are specifically interested in them for the use you'd get out of them, and not just out of sentimentality? Our parents do not always know the multitudes we contain.
    posted by Sara C. at 6:55 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

    you're not imagining it, it's sexism.
    It happens over, and over, and over again.

    It's sexism of established structures though, where they encourage the boys into the land, and then all inheritance goes to them. The girls who go into farming, if they do, are still more likely to be expected to establish their own with their partners/husbands.

    Same thing happened to my best friends mother recently. Her brother and male cousins got at least 90% of the estate. He (my friend), was pretty shocked.
    His mother IS a farmer with her partner, but far, far away (since it's not like she'd get any of the original property). If they want to own land, they have to take a mortgage for it, something her cousins don't have to do.

    I've seen it happen a bunch more times, and each one off doesn't seem so bad, but, excuses start wearing thin at the repetition of the theme.

    At this point, there's not much you can do about it. Any land WILL go to the males who are continuing the farmhold, anything 'blokey' will go to the guys who look like they have a practical purpose for it.
    Even though, YES, if you were a son with a completely no-tools white collar job, actually, you WOULD probably inherit various tools, and they wouldn't think of a cousin to give them to instead, or someone who probably already has their own good tools.
    They genuinely won't think of the money involved, or how unfair it is.
    So... there's pretty much nothing you can do there, without coming off as ungrateful, and the one raising a fuss.

    I'd not ask for all of them, but ask for specific tools, and mention what you want to use them for. Or, show your own tools to your father, and ask what he'd advise.

    I'd see if you could have some conversations with them, and ask them if they wished you'd gone into farming, carry it on for them. Hopefully they respond that they're happy with where you are in life. Mention that you feel sad that when you see your cousin taking over the land, that you feel like you aren't continuing their legacy. Not that you begrudge your cousin, but that you wish you could have done more. Because that's what hurts, not the money, but that it feels like they don't want you to continue on anything that IS their real legacy, like the tools, the truck, the land.
    Do mention that when they're gone, you want to remember your father by the things he ACTUALLY uses, not just household things. Keep communication open, and see where it goes.
    posted by Elysum at 6:55 PM on August 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

    Also, is it possible that they sold to your cousin because he asked?
    posted by Sara C. at 6:57 PM on August 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

    I just want to say that I totally agree with the OP that it is SUPER shitty to see your parents favor other family over you, their direct offspring.

    Equivocating for tradition or out-dated gender roles is kinda bullshit. This really is about looking out for your children (and grandchildren!) after you are gone, something the OP's parents seem to not care about. Translated : it seems like the OP's parent's don't care about her, her sister, and their respective families.

    That's harsh to take.

    OP, I don't know what you do with that, but I hear ya. As a woman and a daughter, I found this sort of thing highly upsetting, too.

    Be glad you're finding out now what their attitudes are. I hope they come around.
    posted by jbenben at 8:51 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

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