Dear Penny: Mom Left Me the House in Her Will. Do I Owe My Sister Anything?

This illustration shows two sisters fighting over a house.
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Dear Penny,

My mother passed away about a year ago at 91. Ten years ago, when my mother wrote her will, my sisters did not want my mother’s house; they just wanted her stuff (antiques and money — anything that they didn’t have to work at). The house was worth $75,000 at the time. When she passed, the house was appraised for $150,000.

At the funeral, my sister said she wanted the house; she’d been living in it with our mother and had retained an attorney. When the attorney saw the will, he told her it was what it was. I told her I wanted $150,000 for the house, and she offered to pay $100,000. There are a lot of other things, but that is the main theme. My mother was of sound mind at the time she sat with her attorney and put her things in a trust. I feel bad at times but what are you thinking?

— Rightful Owner

Dear Rightful,

Inheritance disputes are tumultuous for families — especially around houses, which hold the most sentimental value and the most wealth (and, therefore, opportunity) in many families. I sympathize with your situation, and I hope this question of inheritance isn’t creating a rift in your relationship with your sister where there wasn’t one before. When you lose a family member, (re)connecting with loved ones can be fortifying.

It sounds like the legal experts have already weighed in: There’s no evidence your mother shouldn’t have been able to agree to the will she created, and your sister’s attorney has agreed she has no claim to the house. I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t offer additional legal guidance.

I’m sensing your bigger question is one of conscience: Should you feel guilty for claiming the appraised value of the house?

I often notice that stress around inheritance comes more from our cultural relationship with money and less from imminent financial concerns themselves. You might have planned for an inheritance of around $75,000 from your mother’s house after her death, but hearing an appraisal of twice that amount (driven by impossible-to-plan-for economic circumstances) makes you feel like you’re taking a loss if you accept any less.

You and your sister are each likely experiencing some form of loss aversion, which is a tendency to hold tight to what you already have — in her case, the house she’s been living in; in your case, the appraisal of $150,000. Humans tend to play it more fast and loose with something they don’t have yet, which would explain why your sisters weren’t concerned about inheriting the house when it was brought up 10 years ago.

Our financial culture tends to teach people to make money decisions using only mathematical rationale, as if we can ignore the human feelings behind them. But these experiences have to be part of the equation, too. The loss aversion you and your sister feel — combined with the grief of losing your mother, a lifetime of your sibling relationship and any other circumstance affecting your day-to-day lives — is affecting how you feel about the value of the house.

Step back from the financial details, and see if you can uncover any emotional drivers behind your negotiations with your sister. What has your relationship with her been like in the past? What does your mother’s house mean to you (and to her)? What did you each experience around money growing up? How does that show up in how you each behave around money now?

There’s not a single right answer here. Our system of property ownership and inheritance creates a lightning rod for the emotions that come up when a family is grieving a loss, and that’s not fair to your family. I can only recommend that you do your best to have your conversations from a place of empathy and not let our culture’s robotic tendency toward financial optimization dictate what you want in this situation.

Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance®, author, speaker and personal finance journalist. She writes Healthy Rich, a newsletter about how capitalism impacts the ways we think, teach and talk about money.