Wills: Your Daughters, Your Sons

Divide your estate evenly, or erase the male-female income gap?

Since the start of the women's movement, women have been told they're equal to men in all facets of life. But in the area of financial security, inequality still rules.

A host of statistics supports the theory:

  • The Census Bureau says the income differential between men and women is improving -- but not equal.
  • On average, women spend 11.5 years out of the workforce during their lifetime, according to the Women's Institute for Financial Education (WIFE). That means lower income levels and lower levels of retirement savings for women.
  • Because women tend to spend time out of the workforce raising their children, they earn fewer Social Security credits, which leads to lower benefits than for men.
  • WIFE says fewer women are in jobs that offer pension benefits. Fifty-five percent of men receive pension benefits at retirement, compared to only 32 percent of women.

While women fight for equality in the boardroom and elsewhere, one author says we should consider leveling the playing field by treating our daughters differently than our sons.

That's right, differently.

Fair Isn't Always 50-50?

"I want us to reexamine the notion of fair being equal, or 50-50," says Allison Acken, author of It's Only Money: A Primer for Women (Womentalkmoney.com, 2002).

Fair, Acken says, may be giving more financial help to our daughters than to our sons because the girls are at a financial disadvantage throughout their lives. So when parents and grandparents divvy up their assets and plan for their heirs' inheritances, Acken says we should consider leaving more assets to our daughters.

"We want to look at what's right for our kids," Acken says. "If she's earned less, then she'll have less Social Security and less money that she was able to put away during her working years."

Statistics show that elderly women are in worse financial shape than men the same age, on average. WIFE says in 1997, the median income including Social Security among unmarried elderly women was $11,161, compared to $14,769 for unmarried elderly men. One in four women is broke within two months of her husband passing away, WIFE says. And with women living on average five years longer than men, women have to make their money last longer.

So does that mean you should leave more of your life savings to your girls?

Acken, who is a clinical psychologist who works with couples about money matters, says every family is different, but it's something parents and grandparents should consider.

"Of course you could have a son who is a librarian and a daughter who's a brain surgeon, but in general the men make more," she says. "If we're leaving the same amount, by definition, it's unfair in many cases."

Unfair to Whom?

The notion of leaving unequal inheritances to make up for a daughter's lack of earning power doesn't sit right with everyone.

Deborah Maloy, a certified financial planner with Maloy Financial Services in Wakefield, Massachusetts, says you can't make up for past inequities and should not try to do so in a will. Instead, parents and grandparents should teach their girls how to take care of themselves financially long before inheritances are in the picture.

"It's too late in the game when the parents and grandparents are dying. They should worry about their daughters and money from the get-go," Maloy says.

Maloy says parents and grandparents should make it their duty to arm their daughters with knowledge that will help them succeed.

"Mothers want to be fair and the parents' role is to encourage the girls in the family to have the same money-making opportunities and educations that boys have," says Maloy. "I'd rather teach them to do that than support them by doling out an inheritance."

Her kids both finished college and they're both working. She's explained to them how 401(k) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts will allow them to plan for the future, and they both make annual contributions. And her daughter isn't waiting around for a man before she buys a home. Maloy says she's planning a timetable for when she can make a purchase on her own, married or not.

Maloy says she hopes that when she dies, her children will have good relationships with one another. She says she fears unequal inheritances could put their relationship at risk.

"You're setting yourself up for trouble among the siblings and with family harmony," she says. "I'm not sure that I'd want to leave that as a legacy."

Every Family Is Different

Acken agrees that an unequal distribution of an inheritance could cause some problems among heirs. But she notes, every family is different and estate planning choices should be made on an individual basis.

"If a brother understood that a sister was in a disadvantaged position, he'd probably want her to be as comfortable as possible in retirement," she says. "Of course in some cases there are going to be siblings who don't get along and dysfunctional families who will be upset about it no matter what."

"I know plenty of adult sons who are not as capable as the daughters," she says. "And there should also be considerations if a parent has a handicapped child or a special needs child."

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