Question: My mother passed away many years ago and after her death, my siblings and I divided up the furniture and artworks and other special pieces. We all chose pieces we liked or which we had a particular connection to.
chose a painting that I love and which I recently had valued. We assumed it was worth a certain amount of money when I picked it, but it turns out it’s now worth four times the amount.
I’m now thinking of striking while the iron is hot and selling the painting. But do I have to split the proceeds with my siblings?
Answer: There are two ways of looking at your dilemma. Firstly, there’s your moral duty and, secondly, there’s your legal duty. Your question, in particular the phrase ‘do I have to?’, suggests you’re more concerned with the latter part, which is why I first shared your dilemma with solicitor Caitriona Gahan, Senior Associate with Lavelle Partners.
Gahan says she is unclear as to whether the painting has simply increased in value over the years or whether it was incorrectly valued at the time of your mother’s death.
“If, at the time of distribution, values were assigned to various items with the intention of there being equality between siblings and the painting was incorrectly valued, it is arguable that the siblings have some claim,” she says.
“However, I note that the mother’s death was ‘many years ago’ and therefore, most likely, any claim is not sustainable. If the distribution of furniture and artwork was random and just determined by preference, then the questioner was lucky in her choice and has no legal obligation to her siblings.”
Still, she advises you to set realistic expectations about projected profits. Should you sell the painting, you are subject to Capital Gains Tax of 33pc on any profits, she points out. Add auctioneer’s commission fees and other charges and your quadruple profits suddenly don’t look so enticing.
“The issue of whether or not the questioner has any moral obligation to her siblings on the disposal of the painting may become somewhat moot if the questioner does not realise that she is likely to have a significant tax bill,” Gahan says.
This answers your question from a legal and tax perspective, but it doesn’t quite cut to the nub of the issue, which is of course a potential fallout with your siblings.
I also shared your dilemma with psychotherapist Phil Gormley, who says your dilemma boils down to one question: “Is it worth it? You have to ask yourself, ‘If I take this money, is it going to have a negative effect on my relationship with my siblings and if it does, do I care?’.”
It’s not just about the money, he adds. Conflicts over inheritances force us to confront our values, beliefs and traditions, which may or may not be aligned with other members of the family.
Gormley says he meets two or three clients a year who no longer speak to their siblings due to a dispute over an inheritance. “And it’s always the same problem in that there are differing perspectives of the situation,” he says.
“For example, one sibling might think they’re doing the right thing by keeping the family home in the family. The other siblings might think it’s unfair that this sibling got an opportunity to buy the family home at a reduced price.”
So what’s your perspective on this situation? Perhaps you don’t cherish family heirlooms like other people do.
Perhaps you’re the type of person who is more inclined to realise an item’s worth rather than hold on to it for sentimental reasons. Whatever your personal values and beliefs, you are entitled to have them. But remember, your siblings might not feel the same way as you. Indeed, the issue for them might not come down to money at all. They might be more upset by your apparent disregard for family history and tradition.
You may also have thought about selling the painting and not telling your siblings. This would certainly be the easiest option for now, but the consequences have to be considered. What happens if one of your siblings asks where the painting is? And what happens then if one of your siblings asks why they weren’t given the option to buy it before it went to auction?
It’s also worth thinking about your decision to sell the painting in the first place, says clinical psychologist and author Dr Malie Coyne. “She said she chose pieces she liked or had a particular connection to, so I’m wondering is this a decision she made? I’m assuming this piece reminds her of her mum, so I’m wondering is this really the decision she would like to make?
“It might be that she needs the money right now, but is this a decision she might regret in later years because money comes and goes, but a piece that your mother bought and was valuable to her doesn’t come and go.”
Sibling squabbles over inheritances are, sadly, all too common. And yet, from reading your letter, it sounds like you and your siblings were able to avoid conflict and divide your mother’s assets fairly and equally.
You kept the lines of communication open then, so why not do it now? And should you sell the painting and realise a profit, why not give them something, even as a token gesture? You can’t put a price on sibling harmony but, in this case, it won’t cost you very much at all.
If you have a dilemma, email email@example.com.
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