Inheritance and the folly of working for children

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

  • Simply taking children to school and then handing over wealth whose origin and growth they know nothing about is a recipe for disaster.


It is a story we have heard, we hear now and will be in our ears in the future. When most of us are toiling away we always say we are working to secure the future of our children.  We do this knowing that at some point man dies and passes on the baton like it happens in a relay. Then one is interred.

Many years ago, as a child, I was always intrigued by the act of my parents and grownups ‘always’ going to attend funerals. Irritatingly, many important things then like going for a movie, would be put on halt to give way to the burial.

Now I am also attending a good number. When people die we learn a lot about the lives that we live and the philosophy on which they are founded.

What takes a bigger part of our income, energy and time in the scheme of working for our children, is their formal education.  School fees and tuition plus all the attendant requirements. To give them ‘an edge’ over others in a highly competitive world, many are wont to add ‘extracurricular activities’ like sports, music art and craft.

We always say it will harness their talents and build character so that they fend for themselves, in their own right after we are gone.

But how much of this trajectory is believable to us even when we are serious in pursuing it as parents or benefactors?

You have seen it happen. After all the millions spent preparing the children both at home and abroad -for the lucky ones up to the post graduate level -a good number come back home to be helped to find a job. Some need to remain ensconced with their parents as they prepare to fend for themselves. 

In the cutthroat job market, many a parent are known to use their connections to get their flesh and blood ahead of others. These may be social or even ethnic advantages. The qualifications of the child for which they have invested heavily, become irrelevant at this point or come in second.

That is not all so bad, for charity begins at home. It is just that is the first indicator of the fragility of the notion that all we have been doing was to adequately equip our children for the journey of life -on their own.

For some families, from then on it is the story of watching and waiting. All may seem okay even in ‘ideal’ families where you have one man with only one wife.

But beneath the surface there may be anxiety. What if the patriarch passes on, what did he plan to bequeath each one of the children for whom he has been working all his life? Of course the case of the polygamous family is very tricky. Each of the wives will be looking out for their children. In case they are of advanced age it will be the children taking care of their mother’s interests and by extension, their own.

If a parent starts ailing with a terminal illness that incapacitates them from personally distributing the estate, beneficiaries may position themselves and start on the process. It is ordinarily characterised by the formation of cliques and intrigue motivated by a misguided sense of entitlement which parents instill in children when they claim they are working for them. The hard work of the father now splits his offspring.

When the patriarch passes on, then hell breaks loose. Many times the speeches from various parties, at the wake or during the funeral service or requiem mass, give you hints of what will happen after the mourners leave.

The camps become obvious. Some are working to eliminate others from being biological children of the deceased. The children from the official marriage. Then there are ‘other children’ and women!

Some quickly snatch movable property and sell it. Others petition court to lay claim to property in the estate.

In many instances, cases drag on in the courts of law. Ironically, as an unintended consequence the estate deteriorates in the hands and because of the desires and selfish intentions of those for whom it was built.

I know of a case in which a rich man left two square miles of land. As the children and wives battled in court and put caveats on the land, squatters occupied most of it. By the time they court pronounced itself they had to deal with ‘bona fide’ occupants; people who claimed they had been on the land for decades. In reality they lost the land.

The sweat of the man who worked for it was in vain. So was that of those for whom it was intended. Many estates built painstakingly over many years have withered in no time.

The blame is squarely on laying emphasis on building the ‘hardware’ for our children while ignoring the ‘software’ in insuring their future. So you build them houses, buy them land, vehicles and even open up bank accounts for them -tangible things they see and relate to physically. What the Chinese call giving them fish. Many times these may not even be their interests and hence they may not value them as much as we think they should. That is why many simply sell them off easily without any financial or sentimental  considerations.

We take lightly the significance of teaching them the all important values of the ethics of hard work , frugality, honesty, integrity, diligence, tenacity, mental strength, empathy, patience, sacrifice, focus, starting from nothing and the importance of small beginnings.  This, the Chinese call fishing.

So after the children are done with the fish they are lost when called upon to go fishing to replenish and grow what was left to them to make their lives better and keep the name of their parents alive.

If we are to grow African money so that it is in future referred to as old money and businesses or brands, there must be a thought on how we prepare beneficiaries to own and move estates forward.

Many Asians will sit their children in the businesses to have a hands-on experience of all the day-to-day operations. They gradually grant ownership to parts of the estate to them as their hands become steady.

Our common path of simply taking children to school and then handing over wealth whose origin and growth they know nothing about is a recipe for disaster.

It is an act of folly. It does not always work well.

Twitter: @nsengoba


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