Who Will Remember Me?
Thursday April 2 Morning Edition

Wendy Schmelzer reports that although most people believe in the concept of leaving a legacy for their descendants, it's usually wealthier, older Americans that actually draw up a will. But no matter the value involved, specifying who gets what is not just a matter of dividing possessions evenly among the next generation. Blended families can pose a challenge to the divying up of property. So can personal affronts and sentiments such as "Mom really did like you best."

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BOB EDWARDS, HOST: The right to draw up a will and to distribute one's property upon death dates back to sixth century Rome. A complex code of lineage determined who inherited property from a paterfamilias or male head of household. Today, the system is more individualized. Most Americans specify in their wills that their property should be divided equally among the children. However, as divorce and the phenomenon of blended families have become commonplace in American life, inheritance has become an increasingly thorny issue. NPR's Wendy Schmelzer prepared this report.

LILY DENNISON (PH), RETIREE: This is the second bedroom where I sit and do all my work. I'm a social -- quote/unquote, a social secretary. I was a gofer -- you know that. But it was wonderful. You learned a great deal...

WENDY SCHMELZER, NPR REPORTER: At 86, Lily Dennison says she leaves a lot to fate, but she's not taking any chances when it comes to her and her 92-year-old husband William's estate.


LILY DENNISON: What have I done with it? Oh, wills and codicils, thank you.

WENDY SCHMELZER: For both the Dennisons, they've asked that we not use their real names, this is a second marriage. Lily Dennison says they were lucky to find each other. Each had been widowed. Their only sorrow these 13 years together, Mrs. Dennison says, has been her husband's declining health and an ever-increasing estrangement with her husband's son and daughter-in-law. She says the children, who live less than a half-hour away, never call or visit a now-ailing Mr. Dennison. While she's sure that she and her husband are not blameless, they're still baffled and hurt and so have taken steps.

LILY DENNISON: Here is the will. We went to attorneys. We checked things out, but I wanted to be prepared in case anything happened.

WENDY SCHMELZER: Prepared and protected, Mrs. Dennison says. Her husband's son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild are not in the couple's will. Lily Dennison says she has too little confidence that they would honor their memory. And she's arranged that her personal effects go only to nieces and nephews that she's designated.


LILY DENNISON: There is no sharing between us. I must tell you that I also feel very, very sad about the granddaughter. Look at this -- well, I have some very fine jewelry that would be a lovely thing to give to a young lady. Wouldn't think of it. Whatever jewelry I had given, it's never been worn. So what for? Let's see what's in here.

WENDY SCHMELZER: Experts believe that fewer than 50 percent of Americans leave wills. Those who do are usually older, richer, and better educated. But even adults without wills regard the right to leave a legacy as fundamental. Studies suggest that elders with very few assets often resist spending down and going on Medicaid when they realize it means they can no longer leave an estate to a loved one. University of Minnesota researcher Rosalie Caine (ph) says a will gives a person a final chance to express something about their family and the world they're leaving. It's all the more powerful because it's the last word.

ROSALIE CAINE, RESEARCHER, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: I don't think it's for nothing that it's called a "will." I don't think it's a coincidence that it's a very common plot in novels, whether it's the great literature of the 19th century or the potboilers we pick up at the airport. A lot of feelings well up around the issue of leaving a legacy and expecting a legacy.

WENDY SCHMELZER: Those feelings may run especially high in families with divorce, says Harry Moody (ph), director of Hunter College's Brookdale Center on Aging. He says fractured marriages pose big problems for gift-giving. There's a wariness about divided loyalties.

HARRY MOODY, DIRECTOR, BROOKDALE CENTER ON AGING, HUNTER COLLEGE: We have what the anthropologists call "disordered kinship flow." That is, we don't know exactly what the step-daughter or step-grandchildren owe to other generations. And we can't be confident that if we leave money to step-children, who are then involved in another marriage, we can't be sure that that money will be used for the purposes that perhaps we had intended.

WENDY SCHMELZER: But even intact families may behave unpredictably when it comes to inheritance. Marlene Stumm (ph), a family economist at the University of Minnesota, says relatives who've always been close are shocked when they realize they're fighting over a will. A great deal of symbolic value is often attached to a bequest, she says. It may send a signal to a child, even an adult child, that mother really did like you best.

MARLENE STUMM, FAMILY ECONOMIST, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: You may have siblings who never talk to each other again. A common scenario that you'll hear is "this was kind of the last straw." On the other hand, you may have some siblings who say: "you know, material possessions aren't worth it." It's not worth losing a brother or sister, and they'll try to deal with -- put away the unresolved issues, perhaps, from the past and move on.

WENDY SCHMELZER: Stumm, who has studied the conflict surrounding inheritance, says that most family problems have little to do with money and bank accounts. It's untitled property -- jewelry, personal possessions like Aunt Katy's favorite set of dishes -- that are not so easily divided. Just ask Ellen Rousseau (ph), an educator in her 40s. Even though her father died 20 years ago, Mrs. Rousseau -- she's asked that we change her name -- still winces over the way her dad's personal effects were distributed.

ELLEN ROUSSEAU, EDUCATOR: There was no question about who was going to get what because my dad's possessions went to my brother. He had the space for them, and I was 23...

WENDY SCHMELZER: ... in college and unmarried. Her brother, though, had a family of his own. At the time, it all seemed to make sense. No longer. She's now mustered the courage, she says, to ask her brother for several mementos.

ELLEN ROUSSEAU: If you can't talk with your family, who can you talk with? It isn't for the value of the item. It's for the sentimentality and the memories that it brings back to me. It's -- it would be the little things...

WENDY SCHMELZER: ... tie tacks, cuff links -- he was a very proper Englishman, Mrs. Rousseau says. Having some of his jewelry would mean a lot. According to Marlene Stumm, attorneys often advise older client with several children to include a line in their will that reads: "divide my possessions evenly." Stumm, who has put together a course called "Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate?" says that's not good enough. She suggests instead that a parent talk openly with a child about expectations and what a child might like to have. She says being fair sounds nice and vague and impossible. Wendy Schmelzer, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BOB EDWARDS: That story was part of a series called "The End of Life: Exploring Death in America" -- which will continue on MORNING EDITION and other NPR News magazines. For more information, visit the NPR website at www.npr.org. This is NPR's MORNING EDITION. I'm Bob Edwards.

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