An elderly couple told me this story:
“Years ago, our son stole some money from us. We caught him, and he has since turned his life around. He’s married and has a wonderful family. He’s a good person. But he never did pay back the money he took. The subject just never comes up.
“It wasn’t a great deal of money, and if we never got it back, we’d be okay. But should we maybe just write a provision in our will to withhold that amount?”
How would you answer? Here’s what I told them—and what I still think:
Carefully consider what you’re trying to accomplish. Unintended consequences are just as impactful as the ones you meant.
Your will is essentially your final statement to your family. And last words, as the saying goes, are lasting words. Those sentiments will stick in minds and hearts. They’ll be remembered—as much as anything else you said during your life.
So, choose your words carefully.
If your goal is to exact revenge through your will, a will can be a very useful tool indeed. This is the stuff of mystery novels and legal thrillers. The family gathers around the family lawyer, who reads the will with the verbal intonations of a Shakespearian actor.
“And to my worthless, shiftless son, Charles, I leave this cheap $5 wash bucket, full of the same empty promises he always made to me!” The red-faced Charles storms out of the room, while the rest of the family smiles wryly at just desserts delivered in style.
Nothing in your question makes me think you want revenge. So, let’s look at another option.
Is your goal to bring about justice in your will? That’s what it sounds like. You’re thinking of leaving a generous inheritance to your son, minus the amount he took and never paid back.
If you took this approach, the money would indeed be “paid back” at last. And any other children would be “made whole.” However, you would also mark your son—the one you say has turned his life around—with a brand he’d never be able to wash off. He’d always be “the one who stole from Mom and Dad.” Absent any other actions, that’s what I believe would happen if you pursued justice through your will.
There’s another option—in my opinion, a better one—if you really want to make things right.
Deal with this situation face-to-face, not through a document. Deal with it while you are alive, not after you are gone. If need be, have a trusted third-party facilitate what might be an awkward conversation.
Tell your son what you are really thinking and feeling. Say something like:
“Son, you know that we love you. We’ve been making out our wills and that triggered the memory of the stolen money. We’ve never brought it up; and neither have you. We know you were sorry, and you’ve done such a fine job of making a good life for yourself. We’re proud of the man you’ve become. But we do feel the need to resolve the outstanding issue of the money you stole.
“What do you think is right? Do you want to pay us back? Or would it be better if we just made a provision in our wills that addressed that issue upon our deaths? We can do that in our wills, but we didn’t want to take that action without talking with you first.”
You get the idea. Don’t limit yourself to these words. Make them your own, and say them in your unique way. The specific words that come from your mouth are not as important as the sentiment that comes from your heart. If you’re kind and gracious, and your desire is for true reconciliation and peace, that’s what will be heard loud and clear.
Justice done through a will too often comes across as vengeance.
A loving conversation can work wonders. And it will be immeasurably healing to your family after you’re gone.
If you’re wrestling with good questions like this one, make sure you ask all the right ones. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you my free list of “30-Something Questions for People Who are 60-Something.”
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