How Do You Know

by Bhaj Townsend

How Do You Know Something Like this Won’t Happen to You?

This is a tragic story which can serve as a reminder: “It does not have to happen.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Jenny and Lily are sisters who grew up with their brother, Tom in a small Midwest town. At school the kids were known for their theme centric costume and game parties. Prizes were always a mixture of silly items like silly putty, slinky toys or whoopee cushions and perpetual trophies honoring the winners in friendly competition. All three kids were active in swimming, golf and running.

As the three siblings transitioned from high school to college, only Tom showed interest in joining the family commercial development business. But this was natural. He was the eldest; he was the son; he was the one groomed to enter the business. The two sisters were brought up to hear about the business, give input on the business, but their primary function was to get married and have their own kids to bring back to the family traditions.

The family never talked about the future of the company. Assumptions were clear: once their parents were gone, Tom would run the company while Jenny and Lily would sit on the board, direct its growth and share in annual dividends.

No one was prepared for what happened when Jenny, Lily and Tom’s father suddenly and unexpectedly died. He didn’t die intestate as you might suspect. No, he had a will. It was very clear and easy to distribute by the named executor, his son Tom.

The will left everything, absolutely everything: the business, the house and the assets to one person. This one person you would expect to be his wife, who was still living. That is not how the will read. The will left everything to Tom. Even the wife was disinherited.

In telling the story, Tom does not think his father meant to disinherit his own wife, but instead wanted to make it easier on her. But leaving everything to Tom did not make it easier for the widow. She felt devastated at a time when grieving for her beloved husband should have taken its natural course. Tom and his sisters should have been able to grieve in their personal ways as well but instead had to also deal with new stinging and stunning emotions.

Over time Tom gifted the house back to his mother and made sure she was taken care of during her life through the dividends of the business. But their relationship was different. She was never prepared to depend on her son. It never felt right to her. 

Jenny and Lily, who moved to the west coast, still twenty years later, have not talked to their brother. 

As Tom has told me, it was not worth it, receiving what he did. Although one of his sister’s sons goes to college near Tom, although his nephew has even interned for Tom, the chasm of awkwardness has become too wide a gap to bridge with his sisters. Tom said to me: “After all was said and done the gift of the will became the gift no one wanted.”  Twenty years later it still stung.

The lesson in this story for me is: although we may think the consequences of our decisions will result in a particular outcome, without proper communication, agreement and understanding of how our intentions will be played out, we can’t assume our intentions will produce the outcomes we anticipate. 

Bring the family in to the conversation about what the family wants for the future of the business as well as the future of the family connections. The success of your family’s business and familial future is at stake. Don’t play a dangerous game of roulette when your business and family’s future are to be seriously considered.