My Inheritance Journey

My Inheritance Journey by Diana Fromme

When my mother passed away in September 2010, the last thing on my mind was the fact that I would be inheriting money. Although the illness that led to her death wasn’t a complete surprise, I really thought she would pull through. At one point in her prognosis, it was a distinct possibility that all of her money would have gone to support her long-term care. My daily attentiveness to her languishing state in the hospital precluded all focus on the business aspects of what might be coming…as an Ennea-2, I had to process my feelings before being able to deal with any facts. After the memorial service, when visitors left and the fog cleared enough to see past a few hours, then it hit me. My brother and I were receiving a significant inheritance.

The thought was overwhelming. So many friendly faces were willing to give advice, but it varied and often conflicted: Don’t do anything hasty/Meet with a financial advisor right away. Rent out her house instead of selling it/Sell her house and be done with that responsibility. Voices in my head contributed to the confusion…how far was this money supposed to go, and how would I possibly please everyone in the fallout? I felt that the parceling out of my mother’s money was a huge decision even though I didn’t fully understand the deeper psychological importance of the inheritance as the last tangible gift from my mother. How would I reconcile the voices, make decisions, and move forward? I’d never had more than about $20K accumulation to my name. What in heaven’s name was I going to do with 15 times that amount of money? What would be the responsible thing to do? And so, in savings it sat.

Luckily, my brother helped me by going through all of my mother’s files. Then it was up to me to make the chart of assets and appropriations. Upon seeing the chart, I felt an odd mix of panic and excitement. This money could really help our family have an easier lifestyle; perhaps we could work less and enjoy each other more both at home and through travel together. The inheritance research also unearthed some surprises. The largest of these was the discovery that my brother was listed as the only beneficiary for a very large annuity, whereas all the other assets were equally split. This seemed odd ‘ was it an oversight on my mother’s part? How many times had she purposefully mentioned that we should make time to go over ‘all the financial stuff’ as she put it? I was beating myself up about not following through. Almost always, my life view guides me to pick solutions governed by justice and fairness. I wasn’t sure how to resolve these recent discoveries but I hoped that my brother would be on board with striving for fairness in the service of relationships.

Finally, my access to my mother’s bank accounts triggered a memory at which I gasped out loud – in 2008 after my husband Brian (an Ennea-7) had been out of a job for six months, my mother lent us $16K against the inheritance to pay off some of our mounting debts. My mom, an Ennea-2, had not drawn up a formal note for the repayment. I checked in with Brian and indeed, neither of us had ever repaid the debt! The feeling of owing gnawed at me and the direction for that money lay as an open question.

Seeking Traditional Help: Financial Advisement

There was no way I was going to attack an investment strategy alone. Because trusting in relationships is my home turf, I called an acquaintance, Warren, whom I knew worked in financial management. I called him specifically because he had made a sincere effort to help me on a writing project a few years back, without asking directly for anything in return for his time and the leads he gave me. Honoring relationships was again my guiding principal – offering my potential as a client in trade for his former time investment with my writing work. I considered myself inexperienced in financial asset management and warned him I’d need a great deal of education. Brian was initially willing to go along for the ride. The relationship kicked off just fine. Brian and I engaged in the in-depth consultations Warren asked for to ‘understand our investment beliefs and tendencies.’ We had been through this drill in years past with a few other financial advisors, but no plan or relationship had ever prospered for us.

The first product we invested in, an annuity, was pushed through in a rush because Warren told us that the offer for annuity’s outstanding terms was expiring. While it appeared to be an adequate annuity, the process of deciding so quickly left a stale taste in our mouths, and Brian’s in particular. As an Ennea-7, he likes the process of visioning and is less comfortable with nailing down the decisions. I was eager to get some investment going and more comfortable with the decision to move forward, but in hindsight, how much of that was just to please Warren and show him that we would follow through to make his consultation time worthwhile?

As the other possible investment options rolled out, Brian became very angry. Just as we had encountered in years past, the product set was limited and Brian questioned if Warren really had our best interests at heart. We were making decisions strictly from an analytical level, and we both felt a lack of spiritual connection with Warren or with the choices he was offering. Our financial inexperience didn’t help us as we floundered, attempting to swim across the entire financial management channel without properly training for such an event.

Warren and I didn’t speak the same language at all – I am relationship-based and he is fact-based. This was something I hadn’t noticed when he was helping me with my writing work. I learn more from stories and he explained concepts analytically. I had started with a complete innate faith in this relationship ‘-not even imagining that others play with a different deck – but now I felt a growing sense of discomfort. Warren was a nice guy and had invested a lot of his time with us. I felt the ‘owing’ burden in this relationship and yet I knew logically that I was the client and should call the shots. He likely saw me alternatively agreeing and giving him the green light to do research on a product, and then putting on the brakes when it came to getting account paperwork signed. No doubt, I was giving him mixed messages.

Seeking Money Psychology Assistance: A New Avenue

About this time in the process, LCSW Carolyn Bartlett called to ask for my professional help on a writing project. I knew she had experience teaching money psychology as well as the Enneagram. She wanted me to help her write, and I wanted some insight about the process I was going through with the inheritance allocations. Perfect! We worked out a trade, which of course felt great to me. We negotiated four sessions: one, overviews of the Enneagram and the inheritance challenges; two, a session for building my genogram, or visual family history; three, a session for building Brian’s genogram; and four, a session devoted to what we learned as a couple during the entire process.

Carolyn proposed that if we sorted out the emotional and psychological meaning of the inheritance, decisions about the actual money would come easier. Could this process yield the spiritual root that Brian and I were so lacking in our discussions with Warren?

Carolyn explained how a genogram is a map of an extended family system that provides a snap shot of the relationships at a given time, insight to underlying family values and where they come from, and a picture of how emotional energy travels (often in triangles). Carolyn pointed out the triangle of me, Brian, and Warren created by my anxiety to please and ‘pay back’ to a relationship that Brian didn’t value in the same way.

The genogram offered a chance for me to see which dynamics most strongly influenced people in my lineage, thus revealing their circumstances. This process would give us good empathetic insights about why they did what they did, even those that are long past their time on earth. One can ask any question of the system in the context of the genogram ‘ and patterns repeat ‘ in my case I wanted to make the most of my mother’s gift.

Carolyn peppered me with questions about my family history. What did my mother and father do for a living? In what era did my grandparents and parents live? It was significant to my mother’s life and attitudes that the whole family lived through the Great Depression. I have half sisters ‘ what was their relationship to my mom’s inheritance? What were my earliest experiences with money? Carolyn used the answers to these questions to draw my genogram, a large, branching web of family relationships and dynamics.

Genogram Insights

The visual representation of my family history yielded several important insights that underpinned my beliefs about money: My mother grew up with parents who emigrated from Italy to New York City, and they all lived through the Great Depression. My mother felt a strong need to contribute financially to her family’s welfare and made sure she wasn’t a financial burden on her family once she was old enough to work. (And she told me many times that she did not want to be a financial burden to us in her old age.) She learned how to live through tough times, and although never overly frugal, she was also never overly extravagant. In her later years she was generous with her money when it came to helping immediate family as well as supporting family trips and educational adventures. She blatantly stated, when offered to move to an independent living situation, ‘I’d rather that this rent money went to my grandchildren’s education.’ The genogram helped me see that statements like this were value statements, which were leading to an overall connectedness with what the giver of my gift might appreciate that I do with her money. My father started educating me about budgeting from age 10. I received quite a significant allowance for such a young person, and had to allocate the required 10% of it to savings AND cover my competitive swimming expenses and family gifts before I could use any discretionary money. In my college years and early twenties, he gave me loans written with notes, so that I would get used to paying back what I owed on time and with the proper interest accumulation. This taught me an ethic of fiscal responsibility, and gave me a special relationship with him around money. Yet, this created a triangle among him, me, and my mother, who was not part of these financial discussions. Was I repeating this triangle by excluding my spouse at times for third-party relationships like the one with Warren?

Brian and I had been saving what we could for our biological daughter Amy’s college fund, and my mother had a grandchildren’s trust established for their higher education as well. Warren had identified a gap in the college funding as part of his analysis. As Carolyn wrote the gap amount on the genogram, I got goose bumps…$16K, the exact amount Brian and I had borrowed from my mother and never paid back. I had read the number in the report, but seeing it on the genogram felt like synchronicity. My half sisters theoretically would have gotten their inheritance when our father (two different mothers) passed away…but did they? No one on my mom’s side of the family knew the answer. My mother’s will did specify a fixed sum to go to each of them, so neither my brother nor I worried too much about this question….but it was interesting that the genogram made it an obvious relationship question. I was distracted by this piece of possibly unfinished business, and I made a vow to engage my oldest sister in this dialogue at some point in the future. I certainly didn’t want any distributions or lack thereof to prevent anyone, including my half sisters, from loving me.

Carolyn pointed out that wills are often a reality check for blended families. People don’t want to face the differences in resources and opportunities for the biological versus non-biological lineage. They can overcompensate out of refusal and denial or they take care of the biological lineage without recognizing and openly honoring the complications. Either way, these actions likely come at a time when unfinished feelings and even grief can surface and blindside people. Luckily, I did not feel that my relationships with my half sisters changed significantly after my mother died. We were not particularly close, but this event did not drive us further apart.

Carolyn’s genogram session with Brian was also fruitful. His insights included the following: Although his father’s father and his mother’s father were in banking, that financial knowledge didn’t trickle down throughout Brian’s immediate family. Brian money management skills were basically self-taught at the age of independence from home. His father’s behavior in general in their family was one of a rather isolated road: the company man who works hard, comes home, and buries himself in a newspaper and a cool vodka. This left Brian with a shadow about success and happiness’is conventional success exclusive of happiness? Does success lead to feeling trapped? Since feeling trapped does not line up with the 7 personality, Brian’s view of his father made for fear and ambivalence about ‘financial success.’ A challenge for Brian, then, was how to engage in financial communication in a healthy way in our marriage.

Brian thinks that by watching his father’s behavior he also learned not to jump in when it came to family matters, including money. This behavior was partially mirrored when he learned of my inheritance…as I was casting out for help he remained purposefully quiet, shying away from the role of being fatherly to me, taking a back seat to being a leader. His 7 showed as he struggled with his own feelings about his connection to my mother. He felt as if she would have given him money to support his business ideas, and yet his dislike for control prevented him from pressing that idea too hard. He felt as if he wanted to avoid an authoritarian role; he didn’t want to tell me what to do.

The inheritance challenge then provided us as a couple an opportunity to work on our negotiating skills, starting with Brian providing input without feeling bad about taking control. Brian saw the additional money as an opportunity for us to work hard on something together and see it through.

Brian’s genogram also helped me see the strong loyalty lines between my husband’s children and their maternal lineage, just as I had seen in my genogram the solidarity from my father to his first daughters from a different mother. Though I helped raise my husband’s children and wanted to honor those relationships, they had their own trust fund established after the death of their mother when they were young. It was a relief to step back and see they were ‘taken care of’ in this exercise. I could let go of the feeling that my mother’s inheritance had to be spread equally to them. My initial reaction was to support relationships through an equitable distribution among my step and biological children. Despite the fact that my mom had allocated a fixed sum to her stepchildren, I saw that my stepchildren had a significant gift from their mother, one I knew that Brian had already paid into.

I decided I could award my mother’s inheritance toward my stepchildren’s milestones at my own discretion, as I did when our oldest daughter got married last year. For our son, I have my eye on funds for him when he returns to school or has a solid business plan for an entrepreneurial adventure. Why? Because these aspirations are among those that my mother championed. It was becoming more and more clear how important the values of my gift giver influenced how I would decide to allocate the inheritance money.

From all the genogram work, I had some starting points for answers to my original questions. I had insights as to how family patterns repeat themselves and to which factors most influenced my mother’s beliefs about money. I was convinced of the importance of partnering with the inheritance giver, my mother. I was even gaining some ideas about what my mom wanted me to do with the money. But how could I be sure of my mother’s partnership around these big questions?

A Conversation with the Giver

Carolyn suggested an additional exercise to include my mother’s input to what she wanted for me and for my family: to journal a spiritual dialogue with my mom. I told my mother my concerns, asked her my questions, and listened quietly for answers. To my surprise and delight, the answers I wrote came loud and clear. Whether they came from unconscious insight or spiritual attunement, this exercise revealed important information. I asked her about the debt Brian and I owed her. My mother supported the idea that the $16K that my husband and I hadn’t paid back would be invested for our youngest daughter’s college education. The matching amount of money was no coincidence. This redirection of that debt made so much sense, given my mother’s wishes for her grandchildren. And, it gave me great relief to have a home for owings that had become an oversight on all of our parts. With regard to my reluctance to commit a chunk of the inheritance to a higher-risk investment fund suggested by Warren, my mother reaffirmed that she and my father were not completely shy of the stock market. I could feel comfortable repeating some family investment patterns by venturing out into a mixed-allocation fund that carried some level of risk.

Finally, the dialogue with my mother guided me to look at how much money she, in her retirement years, had lived on per year. This point was important because we had given Warren a fairly high retirement income benchmark, and were struggling with the amount of lifestyle sacrifice it would take to meet that benchmark. I concluded that this high level of retirement income was not necessary for us to have a comfortable retirement, which became a relief in letting go of the need to earmark all of our additional inheritance funds for that purpose.

So many insights yielded from this money psychology work helped me ‘do the right thing’ with my inheritance. I took action with the values of the giver in mind, which also satisfied my 2 need to please, be helpful, and honor her gift. I hoped that my choices would enhance not only our current lives but those of our future generations. The root work also re-kindled my and Brian’s energy around making financial responsibility a priority and passing that ethic along to future generations. Brian re-committed to staying in his day job while simultaneously visioning his entrepreneurial future, as opposed to just jumping ship for the next Ennea-7 adventure.

To finish out our money psychology work, I discussed with Carolyn my relationship with my financial advisor. Under the lens of the Enneagram, I was definitely continuing the relationship more to take care of him. The relationship was no longer helping me make the best decisions. I decided that the products I had committed to were fine, but that I would not commit any more funds. This freed up resources for Brian and I to realize one of our dreams together: the flexibility to finance and move into a smaller home. We embarked on a downsize from our home of 17 years into a smaller but very comfortable house. We did not have to worry about selling the previous home first, which enabled us to finance immediately when the home we liked popped onto the market.

Looking to the future, Brian is hoping that the inheritance will allow money to flow more easily in his life. He is a visionary 7 who puts faith in his imagination to make a better way. He hopes to focus on the work a 7 wants to do ‘ that of improving the world and creating and manifesting his many ideas. Contrary to his perception of his father’s circumstances, he won’t settle for the drudgery of holding down a job just to support a family’s status quo.

The combination of understanding my 2-ness, exploring the influence of mine and my husband’s genograms, and grasping the values of the inheritance giver empowered me to move forward with some key financial decisions that I don’t regret today. These were huge decisions; the inheritance was the last tangible gift my mother could lay in my hands. Psychological revelations took me from feeling overwhelmed to feeling in control and peaceful with the way I invested my inheritance.

Diane Fromme is a freelance writer based in Northern Colorado. She enjoys sharing perspectives and information about family dynamics. Check out her blog at