Navigating the Emotional Journey of Inheritance – Overcoming Inheritors Guilt

When we think about famous estates and inheritances, the media tends to focus on the financial aspects—the contents of the will, the size of the estate, and who inherits what. Rarely do we delve into the emotional roller coaster that comes with receiving an inheritance. It’s a significant oversight because, whether the inheritance is worth $50,000 or $50 million, the emotions that accompany it can be overwhelming, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s passing.

The Mental Fog and Guilt that Accompany Loss

I vividly recall the mental fog that enveloped me when my widowed mother passed away nearly two decades ago. She and my father had been diligent, hardworking owners of a small store, and the legacy they left behind was the result of years of dedication, long hours, and careful savings.

Instead of immediately thinking about how to invest or spend my share of the inheritance after the shock of her death and the funeral had subsided, I felt a weight of responsibility not to squander the money and possessions that represented my parents’ years of hard work. It took nearly a year for me to comfortably consider it my own and begin making financial decisions. It took even longer to detach emotionally from the jewelry, including my mother’s 1940s engagement ring and some modest pieces from my grandmother, which remained in my safe deposit box for several years before I could let them go.

Simultaneously, I felt a sense of guilty relief that I didn’t express, not even to my husband. Our two daughters were still years away from college, but their future expenses loomed large. I knew this unexpected windfall could significantly ease our financial burdens.

These complex and often conflicting emotions are entirely normal, according to Amy Zehnder, a Strategic Wealth Coach at Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank. She explains that inheriting wealth can evoke feelings of guilt, elation, isolation, and confusion. “When financial gain results from the loss of a loved one’s life,” she writes, “it feels crass to be excited about the opportunities an inheritance affords.”

Zehnder identifies six emotional stages that often accompany inheritance:

  • DisbeliefInheritors commonly experience shock or disbelief, regardless of the loved one’s age.
  • Anger: This may be directed at the death itself or the challenging circumstances surrounding it.
  • Euphoria: Some individuals, especially those unaccustomed to disposable income, may go on a spending spree they later regret, while others experience profound relief as the initial emotional turmoil subsides.
  • Guilt: Inheritors may struggle with conflicting feelings about how to use the money to honor the deceased or unresolved family conflicts tied to the inheritance.
  • Paralysis: The fear of misusing the money or not properly honoring the loved one can lead to inaction, resulting in assets sitting idle in low-yield accounts or safe deposit boxes.
  • Becoming “heirworthy“: Eventually, inheritors come to terms with their loss and its implications.

Moving On

The timing of moving on varies from person to person, taking weeks, months, or even years. For me, letting go of negative feelings about the inheritance involved contributing a portion of it to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, an organization my mother, an amateur opera singer, cherished. Part of this process entails imagining how a deceased parent or loved one would react to your intended use of the money and acting accordingly. It’s essential to remember that if someone chose to bestow an inheritance upon you, they likely believed you would use it wisely.

Of course, there may be immediate decisions to make, such as handling funeral arrangements or legal matters, which cannot be postponed. The sale of a home may also require attention shortly after a death, especially if it has a mortgage or high property taxes.

However, experts suggest that inheritors should wait a few months before taking control of estate assets to ensure that emotional conflicts and guilt do not cloud their decision-making. With a clear mind and fresh perspective, an inheritance transforms from a source of anguish and confusion into a growth-enabling experience and a gift that opens up new possibilities.