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Equality between children, necessary or not?

Charles-Henry Tournaire
August 27, 2021

If you have several children, then you are probably familiar with the tacit convention of treating each of them equally.

That pursuit of fairness is a balancing act you will have to face at all ages, whether your children are young or adult, for it is not only gifts that can lead to situations of (perceived) inequality, but also donations or, perhaps most often, inheritances. To avoid these family squabbles, parents often opt for an equal division of their estate. But is this as fair and effective as they think?


Equality or equity?

“Equality”,urges us to regard everyone as equals and to treat them accordingly. Often confused with equality, but fundamentally different, is the concept of“equivalence”, literally meaning 'of equal value'. 

At first glance, equality seems like a principle we can only applaud. However, it starts from the assumption that we are all identical, with no differences to set us apart. Equivalence, on the other hand, recognizes our differences (individual characteristics, qualities, skills, etc.) but considers them to be “of equal value”.


Equal opportunities, do they exist?

Equality and equity are not just terminological differences. There is a fundamental difference between treating people equally and seeking equity. For example, parents who treat their children equally will always support each of them in the same manner, regardless of the situation of each child (e.g. they will give the same amount to their daughter who is unemployable because of a physical disability and their son who is CEO of a successful business).

Parents who seek equity in the treatment of their children, treat them according to their needs and personal situation (e.g. they give a house to their daughter who is unemployable due to a physical disability, and give € 10 000 to their son whois CEO of a successful business to pay for the renovation of the house he bought for himself).

Most parents want equal opportunities for their children, but these are not born with the same talents, abilities, or interests. Therefore, they will not have the same opportunities from the start and one child will need more financial and moral support than the other.

A child who wants to study academics will inevitably cost more and impoverish the family fortune more than a child who wants to enter the workforce immediately. A child with a disability will require lifelong financial support from his parents, whereas a child without a disability will be financially independent at the age of 25.

The maintenance obligation of parents often leads to conflicts, which may or may not be hidden. Not only their children are different, but the situation of the parents evolves too over time, both personally and professionally. They will be able to give some children more attention and others more money, and it is far from easy to compare these two.


Inequality is measured in euros, inequity is not

It is not surprising that seeking equity or equality in the treatment of children has an enormous impact on family relationships and well-being and is much more deeply rooted than we might at first think.

 The case of a family business

Mr. Durand is the CEO and founder of a thriving painting company. His son is also involved in the business and enjoys the prestige and good reputation that his position in the company brings. When Mr. Durand dies, he leaves the company to his son and the property company to his daughters. In the eyes of Mr. Durand, and in fact, this is a fair distribution of his wealth. However, on hearing the news, his daughters refused the inheritance.

Mr. Durand opted, no doubt with the best of intentions, for an equal division of his estate. Nevertheless, his daughters feel that the distribution was unjust. They did not enjoy the same benefits as their brother did for years thanks to his job in the painting company. The fact that this unequal treatment continued after their father's death cannot be resolved with material compensation. This example confirms: inequalities are measured in euros, inequalities are not.

Mr. Durand, like many people, chose to divide his inheritance into equal parts. The laws also provide for an equal division of the assets between the children unless the testator consciously decides otherwise. He may, if he wishes, favor certain children over others. Such an unequal division is still often considered as a punishment for the disadvantaged child or as an expression of a clear preference for the favored child.

However, there are many deeper, more complex reasons that can justify the unequal distribution of an inheritance. Almost all of them can be traced back to the fact that children are inevitably different and therefore do not have the same starting point in life.


It takes courage to organize an inheritance

Whereas equality is a form of 'the same for everyone', equity is a form of compensation and positive discrimination. Indeed, we often achieve equity by considering the structural inequalities that arise when people with a favorable life course and people with a less favorable life course are treated in an equal way. Funding an adult child who has completed his studies and can live financially independently is not the same as funding an adult child who has to live without a fixed professional income due to a disability.

Whether parents seek equality or equity in the organization of their inheritance, in most cases they will be pursuing justice. Equality assumes that everyone starts from the same place and has the same needs. Life, however, is full of unfair situations (handicaps, psychological problems, accidents), which thus create inequalities.

Equity is therefore the way to "favor the disadvantaged" to compensate for the constraints and disadvantages that they may suffer.

The point is not to question equality as a fundamental principle, but rather to think about how we can manage the inequalities it inevitably creates. One thing is certain: preparing for your inheritance takes courage, but it is worth it. By thinking carefully, you can help avoid or limit future conflicts among your heirs. We cannot propose one correct approach, as each situation is different and must be treated accordingly. However, we can conclude with the following observation:

Equivalence seems to be the means and equality the result. Do you want to preserve the peace in your family? Then try putting equity at the service of equality.
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