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The Inequitable Distribution of Money Gifts

I write to you asking for some advice on how to handle an unusual family situation involving favouritism, and gifts of money.

My immediate family lived until recently in a city far removed from our extended family. We have since fragmented even further as my brothers and I (there are three of us, all in our twenties) have moved out, but we still flock to our childhood home as each year ends. Each Christmas we receive cheques and a card from Grandpa, all collected together in one envelope. Grandpa is a retired business owner with a lot of money to his name, so the cheques are substantial. Some years ago we noticed that we each received significantly different amounts. This might not be notable if this was based on age or somesuch, but it isn’t; after a few years that would be quite obvious. Rather, the difference is based on how much Grandpa likes the recipient. My older brother, for example, is having some problems with his life, and has had difficulty finding direction and applying himself to studies or a career. Grandpa doesn’t approve. He makes no secret of his opinion of each of us individually, often commenting on how well my younger brother in particular is doing (entirely fair, he is doing very well), while not mentioning another. In normal conversation this might pass without note; we don’t discuss our favourite athlete and then pause to give honourable mention to the others in the competition. However, Grandpa is effusive in his praise of my younger brother, “What a great guy,” he says. But when met with similar praise of my older brother he balks. “Oh yes,” he says, “All your children are great.”

In previous years the amount of money has appeared to follow whatever the trends of Grandpa’s comments are leading up to Christmas. This year we found that my younger brother and I received the same amount. Great, we’re happy with that. What we’re not happy with is that the amount is three times what my older brother got. Why is this? One explanation could be our individual needs. I have a wife and child (with another on the way) so perhaps the case could be made that I need the money. My younger brother has little income and is starting a company, so maybe he needs support too. My older brother has no job, is looking after his fiancée, and is reliant on his disability pension. There the reasoning unravels. The one with the most needs get the least. Although maybe it’s entirely the reason after all, since my younger brother and I could be called successful. He finished university with honours and is starting in business, and I’m studying while supporting a family, and own a home. Our older brother’s successes can be measured only in how he is managing his mental health, not in dollar amounts or qualifications. Rewarding people for personal success is fine, but is a matter entirely apart from Christmas, and should be secondary to ensuring one’s family is as healthy as possible.

Other examples of Grandpa’s attitude towards his grandchildren can be found in the difference between his gifts to my cousin and to me for our respective weddings. My cousin received a large sum of money as an engagement present, then another as a wedding gift. I received nothing for my engagement, and nothing for my wedding. My cousin and I are the same age. What is the difference, then?

What I want to know is how to tackle this problem. My mother left Grandpa messages, and wrote him a letter in order to get her feelings across but there was nary a peep from him on the issue. She now refuses to discuss us with him in any more detail than “they’re fine.” He occasionally tries to start a conversation on how poorly my older brother is doing (often in a roundabout way), or how well my younger brother and I are doing with a pointed omission, but my mother refuses to be drawn in.

Do I follow her lead and confront him on the issue? Maybe just mail the cheque back? Bank it anyway? The money would be helpful, especially around Christmas, but that’s too much like tacit approval of his contempt for my older brother.

I detest confrontation, but family needs to be respected. What should I do?  0111-12

Money is a great tool but it certainly can be used to complicate  relationships.  My first thought is that a person’s money is theirs to do with as they wish and if they choose to gift it to another, they are well within their rights to do so with no real obligation to explain to anyone how they spend their money.   The basic rule of money is that one does not talk about it….not how much you gave, not how much you have, not how much you were given, etc.   Grandpa breaks down this veil of discretion by placing all three checks for three siblings in the same envelope making it impossible to ignore how much he gives and virtually impossible for each recipient to be discreet about the amount they have received.

Your mother has appealed to her father to cease with the favoritism and has been ignored so I don’t see where you would have any greater powers of persuasion.   You have two solutions available to you.   Return the check uncashed or simply “lose it” so that it never gets cashed.  There is honor in not being a knowing pawn in Grandpa’s favoritism games.  The other alternative is to conspire with your younger brother to donate an equal share of your money gift to your older brother so that all three of you end up with the exact same amount of money.   If you and your younger brother each received $4,000.00 but older brother only $1,000.00,  each give the older brother $1,000.00 so that the net result is that all three brothers have received the exact same amount of $3,000.00.    If the relationship between the three siblings is worth having, money shouldn’t be a wedge that drives people farther apart.   And Grandpa does not need to know any of this since once a gift leaves his hands, it is yours to do with as you wish.

As for the matter of disparity in wedding gifts, I’m at a loss to figure out how anyone would know who got what and who didn’t get.   I don’t have a clue as to how my parents or inlaws may have gifted various grandchildren who married, including my own daughter.   Unless Grandpa is making it quite public how he chooses to give money gifts for weddings, it really is no one else’s business how much money was received and from whom.   In other words, your cousin should have no idea that you received nothing from Grandpa and on the flip side, how did you find out how much your cousin received?  If Grandpa is the blabbermouth, it reflects poorly on him as being a crass, indiscreet, manipulative old codger who tries to play one grandchild against another using money as the wedge.   The secret to happiness is to be completely free of the expectation of receiving other’s money so that when the inevitable disparity comes, one is not devastated with disappointment.   Gird yourself now because if Grandpa leaves a Will with money for grandchildren, you can definitely expect there to be quite an inequitable distribution of the estate.


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  • MellowedOne January 14, 2012, 9:32 am


    I (think) the OP was being chastised because, to me anyway, the whole story came across as “Grandpa owes us equal gifts”.

    Grandpa owes no one gifts, and when he does give them it’s his decision to decide how much and why. I really do not believe the OP’s altruistic claims that they are only raising a fuss because of a more needy sibling. The OP’s claim that this has been going on for several years and seems to follow a trend of who Grandpa is favoring at the time indicates that at one time or another practically everyone is getting the short end of the stick so to speak.

    The only thing someone needs to talk to Grandpa about is how he delivers such gifts.

  • Cat Whisperer January 16, 2012, 10:48 pm

    Enna, Grandpa’s behavior may be disgusting, but it’s his money to do with as he pleases.

    Very clearly, he’s using the monetary gifts, and the implied threat of how he might leave his money when he dies, to try to manipulate his family members into behaving the way he wants them to behave. That’s disgusting, and I don’t doubt that grandpa is a venomous old coot, but OP is trying to do exactly the same thing: find a way to manipulate grandpa and/or the other relatives who are recipients of grandpa’s monetary performance rewards into behaving the way he wants them to behave. Whatever OP’s motives, I find that equally reprehensible. Using money to manipulate people’s behavior is wrong.

    And the way to put a stop to it is, as I said earlier, to just refuse to play. Tell Grandpa thanks, but no thanks, you will not accept any further monetary bonuses based on behavior from him, he can keep his money; and tell him that you assume that he will as a consequence disinherit you, which is just fine, you’ll earn your own money.

    Grandpa’s manipulations only work if, first of all, you care about getting the money in the first place; and second, if you care about what money OTHER PEOPLE in the family are getting. If you don’t care about whether grandpa gives you anything, the spell is broken; and if you don’t care what other people get, the spell is broken. Grandpa loses his power to hurt you.

    OP has many options: refuse grandpa’s money; refuse to talk to other family members about grandpa’s money; take grandpa’s money and split it with other family members; give grandpa’s money to a cause that particularly irks the old coot; deposit the money in an investment account and not touch it until grandpa dies, and then decide what to do with it. If OP will stop trying to figure out how to manipulate other people over whom he has no control (grandpa and the other recipients of grandpa’s money) to do what OP thinks should be done, and just deal with his own behavior and expectations and consequences, life will be much simpler.

    You can’t control other people. And the only behavior you’re responsible for is your own.

  • gardeniagirl January 18, 2012, 5:59 pm

    the last thing my mom said to me before she had a tracheotomy and had to go on a ventilator was that i was her favorite. my dad died 15 months before. My eldest sister(the executor of their estates, and an attorney) ceased the deposits into all of our children’s college accounts and also my nephew’s) from the estate.(she is childless)3.5 after my mother died, the estate still remains unsettled.sadly, it is our family that would be most in need of these monies, and at this point, the estate is the elephant in the room. Although it is unfortunate that you are beneficiaries of such differing levels of largesses, it is fairly clear why your grandfather chooses to make (even if it unfair) the unequal distributions. there is nothing that can make this situation better, unless you want to split the sums evenly, or, barring that, agree not to discuss it with each other.Money changes everything.

  • MellowedOne January 19, 2012, 7:10 am

    @gardeniagirl – being executor of a will is a legal obligation. If your sister refuses to execute the will you and your siblings can have a judge replace her.

    You are right that money changes everything…among those whose love for it supercedes human relationships.

  • Enna January 21, 2012, 5:50 am

    @ Cat Whisperer: I do agree with Admin about spliting the money – after all when Grandpa has given the money he has no more control over it. The OP mentions the borther has mental health problems I don’t like Grandpa’s discrimination. He wouldn’t like it if he was treated badly by others for something he couldn’t control having. By treating family members such as grandchildren unequally it is a good way to cause tension and bad feeling: does Grandpa enjoy doing this?

  • erica September 10, 2012, 6:48 pm

    I think it’s his money and as much as it bothers me to say it…he can do what he wants with it.

    I certainly wouldn’t refuse it. Do you really think making such a stand will even do anything but make him shake his head and wonder for your own mental health?

    I would say…if you start splitting it equally now…you better get a written contract for when he passes away. I suspect anything you get may also be uneven share and money does strange things to people.
    What if Grandpa suddenly dies and leaves your oldest…everything extra he shorted him all these years…and you and your brother have begun sharing equally. Will your brother understand that you expect him to pool his money in the bequest and split it equally…? Would he actually do it?

    I say let sleeping dogs lie and stop sharing how much you got with one another. That in itself is kind of tacky.