Dealing with the designated difficult one

Steve Gammill
Steve Gammill

Many parents face challenges in estate planning in dealing with what could be described as the designated difficult one — the child whose behaviors or attitudes prompt questions and concerns about inheritance.

Consider this couple’s story about a daughter:

“She’s been one tough kid to live with. Ever since she was old enough to begin to recognize herself as a person, we’ve been in a constant battle. We love her to death, but there’ve been many times I didn’t think so. I know she’d say the same — even more so. I think she loves us, but sometimes it’s more out of a duty than anything else.

“She’s absolutely brilliant intellectually. In school she was always a grade or two ahead of everyone. We saw early on she picked peers to hang out with who are more or less the vulnerable kids. If a child was bullied or shunned, that’s who our daughter sought out. She wants nothing to do with our values and insists the trouble with the entire human race is they can’t see that her way of doing things is the only way. She’s a nonconformist and honestly believes she’s in the right all the time.

“She’s 24 now, so it’s not so much a direct struggle anymore. But we worry all the time about her. Right now, we’re concerned over how to treat her, if at all, in our wills.”

Parents tend characterize such children as unfixable, someone they just have to accept and live with — or without. But how should such children be treated in estate planning? That can play out all the way from ignoring their differences or even their existence to making sure they can’t hurt themselves with their inheritances. And if parents do give up on such a child, what about their relationships for the rest of their lives?

The problem, of course, is far more important than simply provisions in a will: Is such a child lost forever?

Not everyone approaches a DDO as this couple did. Some parents recognize a child’s unique attributes. In some cases, perhaps, she’s the only kid who really “gets” the family dynamics. She’s the one who seems to always understand what’s truly going on and chooses to opt out of the mold — not the family, but the mold. She sees what’s good and not so good and chooses her own path, often to the benefit of herself and everyone else.

More and more parents discover for themselves the relationships they really want and can have with their children simply by being open and exploring those relationships through storytelling. When estate planners take the time to delve deeply into parents’ stories, we help them discern the unique attributes of their DDOs.

So step back and ask yourself: What message am I missing and what opportunity to grow is my family forfeiting because I’m not willing to listen and learn from my DDO?

John Warnick, a lawyer who founded the Purposeful Planning Institute, puts it this way: “Don’t draw a circle that shuts me out — draw a circle that takes me in.”