Disinheritance Prompts Family's Transformation

Commentator Rich Cohen's family has transformed since his grandparents died. When the will was read, the family was surprised to find that his mother had been cut out of it. Cohen is the author of the forthcoming Sweet and Low: A Family Story.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Skylar Bartels had the full support of his family during his days at Wal-Mart. They even contributed a couple hundred bucks to help him buy snacks and supplies while he was there. But families aren't always so supportive. Take the experience of commentator Rich Cohen. When his grandmother died and the will was read, the family learned that Rich Cohen's mother had been cut out. Things were never the same.

RICH COHEN (Commentator): Being disinherited is like being bumped from a flight you absolutely have to catch and the next scheduled flight is never. My grandfather invented, produced, marketed and sold Sweet and Low. Saccharin in a pink packet, which netted my family a fortune. To me there were two Grandpa Bens, the man who I bragged about, the inventor, tinkerer, machine builder, and the grumpy old man who sometimes adored my mother and sometimes didn't. When Grandpa Ben died, he left all his money to my Grandmother Betty. When she died, she willed the estate to my uncles and my aunt and cousins but left my mother Ellen nothing. Why? Because when my grandfather was sick and wanted an operation to fix his heart, my mother brought him to a doctor. A week after the operation he got an infection, went into a coma and died. And so in Grandma Betty's crazy mind, my mother had killed Grandpa Ben.

The legal document said, I hereby record that I've made no provision under this will for my daughter Ellen, my mom, and any of Ellen's issue, my brother, my sister and myself, for reasons I deem sufficient. Disinheritance. Everyone thinks they know what it means, money, but they're wrong. It's a country, it's a continent. It's being left in a basket in the bulrushes. It's your Grandma Betty using some of her very last words to call you and your siblings issue. Did my Grandma Betty understand the permanence of this action? From my perspective, she was like a solider on a commando raid. Blowing up all bridges that connected my family to the past.

She left us stranded on a distant shore. She told us, in essence, that her history did not belong to us. In the end I have only my DNA. When I spoke to my Uncle Marvin who runs the Sweet and Low factory, he said, your parents cared only about the money. He's a short, handsome man, and had always been my favorite uncle, so it stung when he said this. Turns out he was wrong. He's the one who cared only about money. After all, he ended up with most of it. Grandpa Ben, that's what I cared about. He used to take me on low rides through Brooklyn, sit me on his lap, tour me around his Willy Wonka factory. All that is gone now. The story of Sweet and Low and Grandpa Ben belongs to my uncles, my aunt and my cousins, but it does not belong to me.

Did my grandparents love me? All I know is they did not consider me, or what would happen to our family. I used to be close to my cousins. We used to be friendly. We'd joke around, go out for beer. Our families used to vacation together. Not anymore. I have my own little boys. I hope they'll never find out what happened to my mother and her family. But inevitably they'll hear the stories and reach their own conclusions. And either they won't know their cousins and won't care, or they will raise armies and lead those armies to take vengeance in the name of their disinherited, ancient, unloved patriarch of a father.

BLOCK: Rich Cohen is the author of the forthcoming book Sweet and Low, A Family Story.

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