Here’s how to properly handle that sudden cash windfall

It’s important to think about how you to deal with the bequest versus letting it just happen, according to Mendels, because moving too quickly can result in poor decisions, such as spending it all or taking advice that may be regretted later. It can be hard to say no, he warned, so plan on how you’ll deal with ideas from friends and relatives on how to spend or invest the money.

Speaking of relatives, attorney Bob Karn, CFP and principal with Karn Couzens & Associates, warns heirs against fights with their siblings. He has learned through experience that, when siblings bicker, “there is no ‘fair’ and equal is not ‘fair.'”

Unfortunately, families who don’t fight are an exception, he said. To try to prevent family meltdowns, Karn has hosted intergenerational meetings where parents lay out their final wishes. After a loss, clients should let advisors be the “bad guys” to try to alleviate family strife, he said.

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“We can lend rationality and some non-confidential background about the parents,” Karn said. “In fact, I often tell heirs: ‘Live your lives – don’t plan on an inheritance.'”

It is helpful to follow a predetermined process when thinking about inherited money — especially when it is an amount that is significantly larger than you’re used to, according to Susan Bradley, CFP, Certified Financial Transitionist and founder of the Sudden Money Institute.

“You don’t want to be reactive and decide, for example, ‘Let’s go buy a boat!'” she said. “You want to take time to think about what you want to do and be responsive instead.” Bradley advises that heirs make four lists of possible expenditures, under the following categories:

  • Safety (medical expenses, insurance, home repair, personal transportation, etc.)
  • Fun (vacations, dinners, etc.)
  • Future (investing; i.e., money left untouched for at least five years.)
  • Cushion (cash for true emergencies.)

Another, optional category could be charity, according to Bradley.

Make sure there’s some money in each category, she added. Be free form, try to enjoy making the lists and then revisit them. It’s not about putting equal amounts in each category but about prioritizing what the most important items are.

“From top to bottom [wealth-wise], we all struggle when we receive money that feels like free,” Bradley said. “It doesn’t feel like it has the same consequences as your paycheck.”

When dealing with a life-changing amount, it is important to view the event through the lens of change management, Bradley said. “You need to deal with the human side of money first before the technical part,” she added. “That’s the opposite of what most advisors are trained to do.”