So the two brothers had a little problem settling the issue over the million dollar bequest back at a time when a million dollars was equivalent to five million dollars today. They both agreed that an even division made sense, is what their Dad would have wanted if he had actually signed a Will, and both agreed to transfer ten percent of their inheritance to a disabled cousin who needed it more than they did.
Only took a few weeks of discussion to achieve that and both told me, in separate conversations, that money was not going to destroy their love and their family. One put it especially well. “He’s my brother and was always there for me. I’d give him more than half if he needed it. Simple as that.”
Then we came to the inkwell. It destroyed the family.
Ugly thing. And not expensive. Probably made from brass back at the beginning of the twentieth century, a rounded miniature staircase leading into a miniature fountain which was to hold the ink, some cherubs dancing around the fountain, the horrible sort of thing one finds in dingy antique stores on the back shelves.
We had arranged for the brothers to take turns picking out the various household items that their father had accumulated in his one bedroom condo on Russian Hill, a place that still had that musty and medicinal smell of the dying. He had wanted to die at home and the two boys had used much of their future inheritance for twenty four hour a day nursing to make that happen. He had been unconscious for the last week and the boys had taken turns being there with the nurses. They were that kind of family.
As attorney for the boys in their roles of administrators of the estate, I sat and watched them sort the assorted household items into two piles, almost all of it the type of debris that most elderly people accumulate during the last years when they are housebound. Out of date electronics; innumerable magazines and paperbacks; thousands of photographs and photo albums; table lamps, old souvenirs from vacations decades ago…and the ink well.
It was on the broken writing desk next to a large mechanical adding machine. The older boy, Jeb, picked it up and studied it. His brother, Jerry, stopped leafing through the National Geographics and suddenly said stiffly, “That’s mine. Dad gave it to me in my senior year of high school. For getting into Princeton.”
Jeb looked up surprised, started to say something, then put it back on the desk. I went over and lifted it, feeling its weight, and was thinking that no one ever used fountain pens any longer when Jeb’s tense voice interrupted my study. “Dad gave it to me, Jerry. After the army. He told me he was given it after Normandy by his dad. I should have it after Hue.” He didn’t look at his brother, just reached out and took it from my hands.
Neither brother was looking at each other. I felt the tension and decided to break it. “Look, people do that all the time…forget they already gave something away. And since you both left it here with your Dad, it can’t have meant that much to you….”
“I left it here since he had it for Normandy. From his dad. After his death, it was to go to me. For my son.”
A very awkward pause. Neither son spoke for a moment, so I continued. “Let’s put this issue aside for the moment, leave the ink well here and let’s divide up the rest. This is always a difficult time, going through a parent’s possessions. Let’s do what we can here and worry about the disputed objects later.”
“There is no dispute,” Jeb grunted, “This is for those members of the family who were in the service. That’s clear.”
Jerry stiffened. “Well, that’s news to me and I seem to remember he wasn’t too pleased about you volunteering in that war. Or about the war, itself, for that matter. Maybe you didn’t see the letters he wrote to the editors while you were killing for America.”
I stepped between them. “Cool it, both of you. I will hold the ink well. We finish up here and let’s not go into Vietnam right now. OK?” My tone stopped them for the moment and with hostile silence we spent the next two hours dividing up the rest, discussing how the items would be picked up or thrown away, and the moment we had fixed that process, Jeb stood up and left, not saying good bye. Jerry stared at the closed door behind him and muttered something I didn’t hear.
With the ink well sitting on my desk, I wrote both of them suggesting that they share access to the item. Both refused and Jerry sent a jocular note from his father from twenty years before congratulating him on getting into Princeton and saying that he could use the inkwell to write his paper for his PHD. Jeb responded with a much earlier note from the father explaining how he had received the inkwell (and a pistol) from his own father after World War II ended and telling him that both seemed appropriate for Jeb to give to his son.
I was beginning to think it would be wise to toss the ugly thing into the garbage. Perhaps I should have.
Since about a week later I received a demand letter from a lawyer Jeb had hired threatening to bring a petition before the court for the inkwell if I, as attorney for the administrators, did not surrender it to Jeb within ten days.
I sighed and called the lawyer. “You know this is worth nothing. It’s an atrocious ink well.”
He huffed. “My client considers it a family heirloom. I don’t appreciate you deprecating it.”
“And you are going to rip this family apart for this piece of junk?” I heard my voice raising and calmed myself down. I truly respected the father. He would not want this to happen. “Look, this is a close family and a sad misunderstanding. You and I, as the attorneys, need to make this matter go away, not escalate.”
“Then give us the object.”
“You’re not hearing me.”
“You refuse, then? That’s all I need to know.”
I remembered then why I disliked attorneys. “Look, calm down. This is a close family and you don’t want to let an ink well become a disrupting factor.”
“It already has and this has to do with family history. The other administrator insulted my client’s war record. What do you expect to happen when he does that?”
“One comment when both parties are upset should not be used to disrupt…”
“Look, I get it. You represent both administrators. Fine. But I represent one who is a beneficiary and we intend to bring the court in to protect this family heirloom.”
“You are overreacting. And encouraging your client to overreact. You think you are serving your client by this juvenile pratting?”
“It’s not about the money. It goes much deeper than that. As for overreacting…I’m trying to calm him down. It’s not about the money…”
And that was one thing I could agree with that lawyer about. It did go much deeper than money.
As the months dragged on and the family spent tens of thousands trying to prove who had what rights to the ink well, the sad history of the late 1960’s family feuds about Vietnam, counter culture, drugs and rock and roll were paraded before an intrigued judge and by the time the ink well went to Jeb the family was splintered into warring factions. The lawyer made plenty of money but I can’t really blame him. He was doing his job. The real problem was priorities. The past hurts trumped the present relationships.
And since then in perhaps a dozen other instances I have seen family relationships shattered by inexpensive or worthless objects that are symbols. Symbols of love or tradition or reminders of past events or traumas or relationships.
A broken sofa couch eventually caused a daughter to never speak to her stepfather again.
A photo album, that could easily have been copied, was withheld for some months and when given to the upset son had been damaged by mildew. He never forgave his uncle. Never spoke to his cousins again.
And then there are the missing items, the otherwise unimportant book or piece of costume jewelry, the framed picture, the diary…somehow lost during the chaos that often attends death and eventually resulting in one or the other side of the family convinced that it was stolen.
And the elderly often exacerbate the situation shortly before dying. When one is feeble, there is a tendency to use possibilities of inheritance to encourage family and friends to remain supportive and close by. Ill or subject to medications, there is a regrettable tendency to promise conflicting gifts to various relatives or friends, not realizing the turmoil and disappointment that such promises can cause after death. Informal notes and letters can cause chaos and desperate fighting within families once discovered in the deceased’s belongings and seem to always surface right when the family is already emotionally exhausted shortly after the death of a loved one.
And past perceived slights or favoritism to another in the family suddenly blossom when what is seen as favoritism after death surfaces. Arguments forgotten for decades suddenly erupt with renewed vigor and hurt and the parent, who might have assuaged the emotions…is no longer there to do so.
And the worst are the letters from the deceased castigating one or another family member, a curse from the grave that causes irreparable harm to the victim since there is no way to respond or make it right again. Despite the fact that fear of death or medication can often be the cause of the tirades, the family member who is named in the letter is invariably deeply hurt…forever.
Thus we have some rules we try to convince our clients to obey:
1. No vituperative notes must ever be written to be read after death. Only supportive notes. . If you have something bad to say to a family member…do it now.
2. Any possible asset, however small and worthless, that could be of value to a family member for any reason, including sentimentality, either give to that person clearly in your will or trust or if there is a conflict, decide and explain why in writing without hurting any other family member.
3. Never vaguely promise anything. Ever. Either give it or not and if you can’t really recall if you promised the same thing to more than one person, clarify that in writing before you can’t do it any longer.
4. Don’t indulge yourself by giving things away verbally or informally unless you communicate that gift in writing to your lawyer and/or your other family members.
5. Don’t think that something of little monetary value is not important to members of your family. Indeed, money is often the least important thing you will leave to your family.
6. And above all, do not make the mistake to think that your family is “above” this type of dispute. Often the most loving families are the ones most destroyed by arguments over minor gifts.
Jeb never spoke to his brother again due to that ink well and when Jerry died of an unexpected cancer perhaps ten years after the inkwell fight, he did not even attend the funeral.
But perhaps five years later, back from Iraq, his son, who had been given the ink well, sent me and his family a picture. It showed Jerry’s grave….with the ink well and flowers left nearby.
And that year Jeb sent a letter of apology to Jerry’s family.