Fair vs. Equal: How do Families Decide Who Gets What?

03/26/2013 01:45 EDT | Updated 05/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Growing up I remember my mother carefully cutting the pie we were about to enjoy for dessert in precisely equal portions served on plates exactly the same size for all.

Even upon the setting of the dessert in front of each of us kids, there was always the fleeting scan of each set of eyes around the table to make sure that no one was getting an "unfairly" larger portion.

Little did I know the very subtle values that were being learned in that simple act.

In my mother's defense, that is exactly how her parents had done it, so it was something that was never questioned. In turn, it is something I've always done with my kids, along with equalizing spending at Christmas, granting a first car at the allotted age, making sure university tuitions were doled out evenly, and so forth. I thought that was how everybody did it and it seemed "fair".

Surprisingly, as I worked more and more with affluent families in their Estate Planning process, I discovered there were actually families where fair does not mean exactly equal.

Inheritances were not going to be carefully divided and no one was having a tantrum about it! This observation caused me to get very curious about how such beliefs are learned and practiced among families.

First, I discovered that there is a direct correlation in the perception of fairness with the beliefs around scarcity and abundance. The more scarcity that exists in the family's culture, the more likely the family is to worry about one person getting more than others. When a family lives in a culture of abundance, the worry is lessened.

The scarcity mentality seems to dissipate as wealth transfers successfully across several generations. It seems that Generations 2, 3 and 4 will "mature" as time goes on away from scarcity to abundance thinking, and the worries about inequality are less and less.

Second, there is a strong connection in terms of how money is used as an influencer in the family. If money is used to reinforce certain behaviours it suddenly gains a lot of power. So, an unequal distribution of money equates to an unequal distribution of power. Families where money is never used to modify behaviour tend to be less worried about unequal distributions.

Third, these families learned from their parents and taught to their kids a culture of meritocracy and the fulfillment of individual need, which may differ from child to child. One child may receive a computer for their birthday because that is what they need this year, while the other child may receive new blue jeans given their needs. This is rooted in a firm trust that whatever is needed will be provided, and it may not be financially equal and happen all at the same time.

Last, parents often think they are treating their kids fairly but the children's perception of the parents' actions is not always in sync. There is no solution to this other than honest, open and frank conversations in a safe environment.

This is why I like to involve the entire family in the estate planning process so that the parents' ideas about the division of their assets can be discussed while they are alive rather than at the reading of a will.

The values and perceptions about fairness and equality taught by parents are very much based on subconscious patterns. If parents wish to change these patterns they should be mindful, as it will require a great degree of thoughtful intention and diligence.