Personal legacy planningMoving past the guilt of inherited wealth

Key things to know

  • The six emotional stages of inheritance closely parallel the five stages of grief.

  • If you’ve inherited wealth, you may be struggling with guilt. Although it makes you feel awful, it’s a natural stage in the process toward acceptance.

  • Understanding where your guilt about wealth is coming from and considering what opportunities it can provide can help you process and move past the guilt.

The windfall of inherited wealth often comes with feelings of guilt and elation, isolation, and confusion. And no wonder; when the financial gain is due to the loss of a loved one’s life, it feels crass to be excited about the opportunities an inheritance affords.

Learning to be comfortable with inherited wealth is a process of emotional stages that can be aligned with the emotional stages of grief. Understanding how they correlate, and specifically how to move past the guilt stage, can help you find peace with receiving an inheritance and focus on the future.

The six emotional stages of inheritance

There are six emotional stages of inheritance: disbelief, anger, euphoria, guilt, paralysis, and becoming “heirworthy.”1 Barring the euphoric stage, the six emotional stages of inheritance parallel the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.2

  • Inheritors and mourners alike begin in a state of shock, often denying or disbelieving what’s happening to them. Typically resulting from a death, be it the death of the person who created the wealth or the sale (death) of a business that was liquidated, there is a period of disbelief, denial and shock.
  • From there comes anger. Anger of not being able to control the situation, not knowing much about the intended use of the wealth, not having a chance to say “good-bye,” feeling abandoned and all of the ‘ifs, ands, and buts’ that accompany a loss.
  • Next is the feeling of euphoria. Although not often associated with death unless the person was suffering, euphoria is the sense of freedom, a sense of relief that emerges. Some people never progress past this stage. These individuals may spend the money until it’s gone, leading themselves right into a mixed state of guilt and depression, followed by stage one of the grieving process (denial, disbelief, and shock).
  • For those who move past the euphoric stage, a period of guilt often emerges. Guilt is a natural emotional state, especially so when a bequest is accompanied by someone’s death. The guilt stage is no different than the bargaining stage where people try different approaches to get their needs met; making agreements with themselves and/or a higher power about living a good life, never lying again, agreeing to help the needy, leaving a legacy, living long enough to give back and wanting to make an impact.
  • Moving past the stages of guilt and bargaining is no easy task, as it requires focus on the future and a thorough examination of one’s life. This process takes time and can often lead to a state of paralysis and/or depression. Paralysis and depression can occur for multiple reasons: 
    • All the money is now gone, and a newly found fear of not having enough sets in.
    • The inheritors have no idea how to spend the money in an honorable way that carries out the deceased person’s wishes, constantly asking, “What was the purpose of the money?” 
    • Because the process of redefining one’s life, in and of itself, even without the added complexity of money, is paralyzing. When one can’t figure this out, it becomes depressing. The fear of the unknown creates a powerful combination of depression by paralysis.
  • The hope is that people will gradually make it to the final stages of inheritance or grief: feeling “heirworthy” and acceptance, respectively. Feeling “heirworthy” is a sense of appreciation and understanding, often accompanied by a realization that one can live without anger, guilt or paralysis.1 Acceptance, the final stage of death, is being at peace with the situation with the permission to express feelings of fear, anger and sadness regarding the situation.2

By successfully navigating and pushing through the stages of inheritance or the stages of grief, a stronger person emerges. Although you might think it would be easier to just skip the stages of guilt and depression or paralysis, as they appear so bleak, they’re very important in the process of creating a healthy acceptance of the situation and moving into the future without setback. These stages all play a vital role in moving forward.

Although you might think it would be easier to just skip the stages of guilt and depression or paralysis, as they appear so bleak, they’re very important in the process of creating a healthy acceptance of the situation and moving into the future without setback.

Understanding guilt

If you’ve inherited wealth, you may find yourself struggling with guilt. The guilt stage is often not discussed because you’re supposed to be happy with a windfall of money. You may hear that expressing guilt may be perceived as a lack of gratitude, or as insincere. But guilt is a real emotion that needs to be addressed.

  • Guilt is a powerful emotion that can corrode your thinking for years, even a lifetime, if not clearly understood and appropriately tended to.
  • Guilt is often viewed as a negative emotion, one that implies that you did something wrong that needs to be fixed.
  • It’s often assumed that guilt comes from guilty pleasures or an action that is hurting others. Sometimes, the “other” that the action is hurting is yourself.
  • Some researchers view the function of guilt in a societal context, in that it keeps people’s behavior in line with the moral standards of their community.3 Since significant inherited wealth is not a societal norm and most everyone wants to fit in and be accepted, the emotion that surfaces when receiving an inheritance is guilt. This guilt becomes a driving motivation to fit in and be a part of mainstream society.

Picture the following. A young man receives a large inheritance, losing his parents in the process. He unknowingly is now grieving not only the loss of his parents, but the loss of having the relationship he always wanted, but never had with his parents. Although he is now financially secure, he feels lost and a sense of guilt emerges. He goes to his best friend and says, “I know I should be excited about the money I inherited but instead of feeling excited about it, I feel guilty.” The friend replies, “Wow, such a problem to have. I bet everyone wishes they had your problem. Why don’t you just give me the money? That should take care of your problem.” This only exacerbates the problem as now his inner fears are confirmed; that feeling guilty is wrong, that these feelings are not normal, and they don’t fit in with mainstream society. So, instead of dealing with the guilt in a healthy manner, he stuffs it inside and tries to ignore its existence.

Fears of not being accepted and not belonging, coupled with fears of making mistakes, play a large role in creating and driving guilt. Anything that sets you apart from the normal, or perceived normal, can elicit fear.

As it pertains to wealth, if your fear has anything to do with entitlement, it may be beneficial to know that guilt and entitlement have something in common. They both elicit anxiety and depression. Although entitlement comes from emotional neglect or a feeling that you have a right to something vs a responsibility to it, and guilt comes from a feeling of not deserving, or the need to conform or give back, both come from a disconnect between a dream or a vision and your current reality.

Overcoming guilt

Although guilt makes you feel rotten, it’s a natural emotion and a natural stage in the process of getting to the “heirworthy” stage of inherited wealth. To work through your feeling of guilt, consider how you define success and how you separate happiness from wealth.

Wealth is separate from happiness, just as health is separate from happiness. When people experience a major health crisis, such as loss of sight or limb, or they’re diagnosed with a life threatening disease, after a period of time they will return to the same level of happiness they had before the health crisis. Wealth should be viewed the same way: Without it or separate from it, what would be your level of happiness?

Diminish guilt by looking at wealth as a blessing not a curse. Start by figuring out where your guilt about your wealth is coming from:

  • Because someone passed away for you to get it.
  • Because you want to fit into society or with your friends.
  • Because you fear the potential of losing the money.
  • Because you feel a sense of entitlement and entitlement is perceived as a bad thing.
  • Because you fear that you might lose control of something.
  • Because it doesn’t feel right.
  • Because you fear that you might do something wrong with the money.
  • Because you fear you might do something with the money that the grantor wouldn’t have approved of.
  • Because you fear you might do something with the money that other living family members won’t approve of.

Next, consider how you’d answer the following questions. What opportunities has it provided that would not have been there otherwise?

  • If you could do anything, without fear and without guilt, what would you do?
  • If you could do anything with the money, without fear or without guilt, what would you do?
  • If you could create your ideal relationship with those you love and have counted on for years, what would it look like?
  • How can you overcome what’s getting in your way of creating these relationships?
  • What would be a healthy perspective of the wealth for you to create or adopt?
  • What fear, tied to the wealth, do you need to overcome or let go of?
  • How can the wealth improve your relationships with your family?
  • How can the wealth improve your relationships with your friends?
  • How has the wealth made you grow personally?
  • How has the wealth blessed you in a surprisingly good way?
  • What are you thankful for?

Seeking answers within yourself to some of these questions can help you move past the guilt of inherited wealth. Finding ways to align your dreams and vision with your current reality, all rooted in your values, can also free you of this guilt associated with inheriting money. Time spent exploring this guilt may lead you to the freedom that you’re seeking.

Learn how Ascent Private Capital Management® of U.S. Bank can help you manage your wealth today and create a legacy that endures.

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  1. Perry, Ann. 2003. The Wise Inheritor: A Guide to Managing, Investing, and Enjoying Your Inheritance. Random House, Inc.

  2. Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. 1969. On Death and Dying. NYC: Simon & Schuster Inc.

  3. Science News. (July 24, 2007). Why We May Feel Guilty. ScienceDaily.

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