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Honoring Deceased Parents’ Wishes

Your siblings are under no legal obligation to help if your parents’ will is silent on a subject.

Q. I’m one of four adult children of parents who died in the past year, leaving an estate of nearly $4 million to be divided among us. During their lifetimes, they generously contributed to college-savings plans (529s) for each of their five grandchildren. It was their oft-stated intention to equalize, over time, the balances in these accounts.

The three oldest grandchildren had their college educations funded in large part by these gifts. But the 529s of the younger two grandchildren (both under 12, including my 8-year-old son) received the annual contributions for many fewer years before our parents died, so their balances are much lower.

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Our father told us, after our mother’s death, that he would have plenty of time to bring the younger grandchildren’s accounts up to the level of the older cousins’ balances. But he died just a few months later, and our parents’ wills did not leave any bequests for the benefit of their grandchildren.

Would it be reasonable to approach my three siblings about contributing to the college savings of the younger two grandchildren, using some of their sizable inheritances?

A. Yes, it would be reasonable. And I would hope that they would see the fairness of this and want to help you work out a plan.

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Keep in mind, however, that your siblings are under no legal obligation to help you, because your parents’ will was silent on this matter.

But given that your parents had stated their clear intentions to treat all of their grandchildren equally, the younger cousins shouldn’t be penalized simply because they were born years later and your parents died before they could fulfill their plan.

If your siblings balk at contributing, courteously remind them that, if your parents had lived long enough to equalize the college-savings accounts for the younger grandchildren, their inheritances would have been smaller by that amount, as would yours. In fairness, all four siblings, including you, should pony up one-fourth of the money needed.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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