My children refused their inheritance. This is how we give it all
“Let’s pay off Naima’s university debt,” our children suggested. Naima is a black immigrant friend who has been part of our extended family since college. I hesitated, arguing that we need debt-free college policies and programs and full reparations. My daughter’s eyes rolled again, skeptical of the emergence of justice from a historically racist political system, despite the new administration. “Naima and her family are financially stressed every day,” she replied. “We have the resources to reduce their debt to zero now. A sort of mini-repair.
“Which then?” I sighed. “Pay off your loan or fund social justice organizations? ”
“Both,” the children said.
Argh. Having what I thought were decent social justice credentials, I was hesitant to be educated by my daughter, the most virulent instigator. How could I feel so proud of our children for their values while avoiding their criticism and feeling a little flayed at the same time? The quarantine dinners were hectic.
I visited the children in Greece in 2019 when they were both volunteering with refugees. (Note: plane flight paid for with grandfather’s money). Stray cats were everywhere; my daughter lugged a ten pound bag of cat food to feed them. “There are too many,” I blurted out, as we walked maddeningly slow. “Feeding them is not a solution.” Bending down to disperse food, she calmly responded to my fit as a cat rubbed around her ankle: “I can help some.” We had had the argument several times before being more “strategic” and less impulsive; it was strange, I admit, to suggest that she was a little less compassionate in such a cruel world.
Racial justice, recovery from Covid-19, reversal of climate change. It was becoming difficult to justify keeping the estate of grandfather. To study nursing, my son recently snubbed NYU and chose community college. He couldn’t stand expensive elitism. “Use the money from Grandpa’s college fund for Naima’s debt,” he insisted.
But stay. The kids are in their early 20s – could they know they wouldn’t need the money later? The layers of irony made my head hurt. Privilege provided us with the money and it is an even greater privilege to be able to give it with the blessing of your children. We had just been relieved of the age-old worry of parents about leaving something behind by children who would rather try their luck. And they’re probably right being white and middle class, even their kids probably won’t need help.
But a nagging question: what would my father think? Although crazy about children, he would think they were just crazy and say so. My father was a carpenter; he made grandfather’s clocks, hutches, jewelry boxes, things that lasted. My parents weren’t lavish; pretty much the whole point of making money was to leave it to the next generation who would use it and leave it to the next. Nothing would make my dad in Heaven smile more than watching his great-great-grandchildren walk into a classroom using the leftovers from his bank account.
So he wouldn’t be happy. But then I imagined the kids returning his spear of affection to him: playing with his hair, rubbing his baldness, and cuddling him to flex his once formidable biceps. It would surely melt. He was at first adorable and tender; work and money have always been far behind, priorities he inherited from a father he idolized.
So we took the plunge. We have paid off Naima’s loan and are giving away most of the rest in a public way that might motivate others, which we realize is in danger of receiving undeserved praise for simply doing the right thing. We trust our children to understand what the absence of inheritance means. We don’t want philanthropy in perpetuity, taking advantage of unfair tax loopholes and joining Bezos and Gates in giving pennies on the dollar. As the children pointed out, hoarding leaves privilege intact.
And in this period of so many injustices to be repaired and without a roadmap to achieve it, the hearts of children, nourished by the embrace of their grandfather, offer a kind of compass. Their generosity is my father’s real legacy, not his money.