The Fifth Commandment and the Bottom Line

Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

—Deuteronomy 5:16

In a better world, the CNN story would have a better headline. In a perfect world, the story wouldn’t even be news. Get your parents to stop spending your inheritance, says the page title. Stop Squandering My Inheritance says the headline. The story itself concerns elders’ tiresome habit of living on and on instead of buggering off to the cemetery so the next generation can get their hands on the money.

Something about this raises my blood pressure so much that I barely know where to begin in explaining why I find it so offensive. I have to begin somewhere, however, so I’ll start with the headline and its use of the term “my inheritance.”

Last Will and TestamentReaders of this CNN article are invited to believe that the terms “my inheritance” and “my parents’ money” are synonymous. They are not. I may hold a minority view here, but I believe the words “my inheritance” mean absolutely nothing until and unless someone decides to bequeath something to me.

Try to stay with me here, gentle readers of Your parents are under absolutely no obligation—legal, moral or financial—to leave you a dime. Their money is theirs. Period. Your inheritance doesn’t exist until and unless your parents decide otherwise. You have no claim against them and no inherent right to their money. Why would you ever doubt this?

At this point, readers may point out that parents generally have the children they deserve. But this changes nothing. Anyway, I know from personal experience that it isn’t always true.

One day about 20 years ago, a man brought his aged mother into my law office and said, “Mom wants to deed her house over to me.” His manner was brusque, and he was in a hurry.

I explained that I would have to talk to Mom privately. If I were to draft a deed for her to sign, she would be my client. I had a duty to her to ascertain her intentions before I advised her to do anything. The son looked unhappy about this and protested a bit, but he finally headed off to get a cup of coffee while I had a little chat with his mother.

“Who’s idea was this to begin with?” I asked.

She explained that her son had suggested it as a way to prevent her losing the house to pay medical bills in the event of catastrophic illness.

“OK,” I said, “so what about these bills like that? Would your son pay them if you couldn’t?”

She didn’t think so.

“Do you have other assets in addition to the house?” I asked.

She did not.

“So, the question comes down to this,” I said. “Are you willing to die bankrupt in order for your son to be able to have your house?”

She pursed her lips and was silent. She hadn’t thought about it that way. When she did think about it that way, however, she didn’t like it.

“I want to be able to pay my bills,” she said. “I’ve always paid my bills. I don’t want to end up as a welfare case.”

About this time Sonny Jim came back from the coffee shop. When I told him his mother in fact did not want to deed away her only asset, he was furious. He got Mom on her feet and practically pushed her out the door. I assume his next move was to take her to another lawyer to see if he could get a different result.

My hope has always been that Mom was able to fend off her son’s rapacious bullying. She seemed like a nice lady, and she clearly didn’t have the son she deserved.

The point here is that inheritances and other transfers of property from parents are things that must be earned. It seems obvious to me, but not everyone thinks so. A big chunk of the so-called Elder Law business consists of “asset preservation” strategies that work basically by impoverishing parents by placing their assets beyond the reach of their creditors. That typically means maneuvers like getting Mom to deed over her house, and it overlooks a couple of points that ought to be obvious:

  • People who have led responsible lives want to be able to meet their obligations right to the end
  • Parents want the love and attention of their children right to the end

In our time, however, the obvious sometimes isn’t even discernible unless an expert calls it to our attention. A great deal of effort has therefore been expended in some quarters in order to understand why aging parents don’t naturally welcome penury and isolation in order to enrich their children, no matter what. Among the helpful hints in the CNN story is this little gem: “…studies show that children who frequently call and visit their elderly parents tend to inherit larger amounts than those who don’t.”

No kidding. Hard as it may be for some folks to accept, parents can in fact tell the difference between when their children visit and when they don’t. Parents may not say anything about it, but they know. And it matters. Parents need and usually deserve the attention of their children.

This isn’t a new idea. It dates from ancient times and has been a central tenet of our culture from the beginning. Everything anybody needs to know about it is right there in the 5th commandment.