Well before my father died I came to the conclusion that if he willed me an inheritance, I would give it back — not to his estate, but rather to the wider world from which it had come.
Though I believe my dad was a very good, very smart man, I did not share his appreciation for the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of people. While he worked hard almost every day of his life, I knew many other people who worked as hard and who were as smart, but did not experience the same results — largely by virtue of where they were born in US society.
I knew I didn’t need a lot of money to lead a happy, engaged, productive life. True, too little money causes problems. But I had many times experienced my life being richer and more meaningful when I did NOT have access to lots of money, and I was forced to rely on my wits and character as well as the depth, density, and diversity of my friendships.
I broached my intentions whenever Dad mentioned my inheritance, but I was uncomfortable and certainly not articulate. I was especially afraid he’d hear my decision as a critique of how he lived and what he did to “make” the money. In truth, I think very highly of my dad, but yes, this difference between us about what extreme wealth means, where it comes from, and what money is good for sure felt personal. How could it not have?
He was not pleased to hear my decision, and put some effort into talking me out of it. “Think about your daughter ” was one argument, along with “You never know what kind of medical or financial crisis might befall you.” Also, “Why do you always have to be so weird?”
But then, three years ago, I was visiting my dad when out of the blue he said, “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re really going to give your inheritance away.”
“Yes,” I answered.
He said, “I am not going to pay estate taxes on money that is going to be given away.”
“We’ll set up my estate so your share will be treated as a charitable contribution. Think about setting up a foundation.”
That’s what we did, and that’s what I have been working on since he died in 2007: establishing the Fund for Democratic Communities (f4dc). Guided by the collective leadership of 14 activists, artists, gardeners, musicians, labor leaders, librarians, teachers, writers – hell raisers all – f4dc funds grassroots efforts to improve the local community with the $5 million from dad’s estate.
I cry often about this amazing sign of trust between dad and me. I don’t want to paint my dad as a shallow, materialistic person — he was not. But you gotta understand what this pile of money meant to my dad – in many ways, he saw it as his life’s work. And to trust me with it, with my outlandish ideas about sharing, when he knew it would be used to do things he could hardly understand, was an incredible gift, especially coming at the end of his life.
I am also grateful that he set things up like this, so that on the day he died, and in the hard days that followed immediately after, I was not distracted or confused thinking about my inheritance. I did not have to spare a moment’s thought to what to do with that money — because it wasn’t mine and never had been.
The full story this is excerpted from is on the website of the Fund 4 Democratic Communities