Overcoming Inheritor’s Guilt

Overcoming Inheritor's Guilt
Marla Brill

By Marla Brill | Jan 3rd, 2019

Most media coverage of estates and inheritances of the famous focuses on the provisions of the will, the size of the estate, who was unexpectedly showered with riches, or who was conspicuously left out. The topic of how people handle the emotional aspects of an inheritance, however, is largely ignored.

That’s a big oversight. Whether an inheritance is valued at $50,000 or $50 million the emotions attached to receiving one can be overwhelming, especially in the months immediately following a death. I recall the mental cloud that descended when my widowed mother passed away almost 20 years ago. She and my father were hard-working owners of a small store and the legacy they left represented the fruits of decades of long hours, diligent savings, and frugality.

Whether an inheritance is valued at $50,000 or $50 million the emotions attached to receiving one can be overwhelming.

My brother and I both wished that, rather than living a comfortable but modest lifestyle, she had spent more money on herself. When the initial shock of her death passed and the funeral was over, my thoughts did not immediately turn to how I would invest or spend my share of the inheritance. Instead, I felt burdened with the responsibility of not squandering money and possessions that represented what my parents had worked so many years to accumulate. It took nearly a year for me to feel comfortable calling the inheritance my own and making investments and financial decisions for financial assets. It took even longer to disentangle my gut from the jewelry, which included my mother’s 1940s era engagement ring and some modest pieces passed down from my grandmother. Those would remain in my safe deposit box for several years before I finally acknowledged that no one in my family really wanted them.

At the same time, I experienced a feeling of guilty relief I didn’t voice, even to my husband. Although our two daughters were still a decade or more from college at the time, those expenses loomed large. I knew this unexpected windfall would go a long way toward taming that financial monster.

Such wide-ranging and conflicting emotions are not unusual and nothing to feel guilty about according to Amy Zehnder, Strategic Wealth Coach at Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank. “The windfall of inherited wealth often comes with feelings of guilt and elation, isolation and confusion,” she writes in her online commentary. “No wonder; when the financial gain is due to the loss of a loved one’s life, it feels crass to be excited about the opportunities an inheritance affords.”

Zehnder divides the emotional stages of inheritance into six distinct stages.

  1. Disbelief. Regardless of a loved one’s age, inheritors often experience shock or disbelief at a death.
  2. Anger. This may be anger at the death itself, or the difficult circumstances surrounding it.
  3. Euphoria. Some people, particularly those who are not used to having discretionary funds at their disposal, may go on a spending spree they later regret. Others may feel a profound sense of relief that the initial emotional upheaval is getting less painful.
  4. Guilt. This may occur because the inheritor is conflicted about whether or not to spend the money, how to use it in a way that best honors the deceased, or unresolved family conflict surrounding the inheritance.
  5. Paralysis. The fear of not honoring a loved one in the proper manner, or using the money unwisely, may translate into paralysis or inaction. As a result, the money or valuables just sit in a low yielding bank account or safe deposit box.
  6. Becoming “heirworthy.” Following these stages, inheritors accept the loss and its implications.

Moving On

At some point, the time feels right to move on. The amount of time it takes to arrive at this stage varies from individual, and it can take weeks, months, or even years. For me, part of letting go of my negative feelings about the inheritance was contributing a portion of it to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, an organization that my mother, an amateur opera singer, was devoted to. An important part of the process is imagining how a deceased parent or loved one would react to your intended use of the money, and using it accordingly. Remember, too, that if someone thought enough of you to bestow the privilege of an inheritance, chances are that person was fairly sure you would do the right thing with it.

READ ALSO: 6 Ways to Turn Inherited Jewelry Into Meaningful Tributes

Of course, there may be some immediate decisions to make involving funeral arrangements or legal affairs that can’t be put off too long. The sale of a home may also require attention soon after a death, especially if there is a mortgage or high property taxes attached to it.

But beyond those immediate considerations, experts say it’s often a good idea for inheritors to wait a few months before taking charge of assets in the estate so that emotional conflicts and guilt don’t cloud the decision-making process. With a clear head and new perspective, an inheritance moves from a source of angst and confusion to a growth-enabling experience and a gift that opens up new possibilities.

Marla Brill

Marla Brill

Marla Brill has been a personal finance journalist for over 30 years,  writing about money topics for Reuters, The Boston Globe, Financial Advisor Magazine, MarketWatch, PBS’s NextAvenue, and other publications.


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