Dear Family Advisor

My dad's relatives are like vultures after his stuff now that he's dying.

Last updated: Jan 27, 2010

My dad has advanced bladder cancer, and in the last few months, relatives have been coming out of the woodwork. I've overheard several of them ask if they're in his will (he's quite wealthy) and if they can have his gun collection and my mother's jewelry. One even asked for one of his collectible cars.

I resent this. I've been caring for my dad for ten years, and I haven't seen most of these cousins, nieces, and nephews during this whole decade. Is it wrong of me to ask Dad if his will is up-to-date? He's lucid, and I haven't read his will line by line.

Right now, I don't want to give anybody anything. I'm mourning his imminent passing, and I'm too hurt and angry to think about giving his stuff away to people who have shown up at the last minute. Is this my place to say? How do I handle this situation -- and my emotions?

It's your place to feel all the emotions that come with losing your dad -- anger, resentment, fear, grief, and loss -- and you have every right to ask how he wants his affairs handled. But if he's in his right mind, you don't have the right to decide for him.

As hard as it is, and I know because I had many of your same thoughts and feelings, your parent has every right to allocate his estate as he sees fit. We as adult children, family, and friends must respect that, even when we don't agree.

On the other hand, if your relatives' requests are upsetting him, you can tell them gently that now isn't the time to discuss these matters. It is wise to privately ask your dad about his wishes now -- while he is lucid. It sounds as if he knows he's dying. He may feel relieved to talk about it.

Start by sharing that both of you know his time on Earth is drawing to a close and you'd like to help him in any way you can. Is there someone he'd like to see again? A letter he'd like to write? Does he want to visit his wife's grave or have a talk with his spiritual advisor?

When he's had a chance to take care of some of the things that matter most, ask if he'd like to go over his will -- promising that you'll respect his decisions. Be sure to ask about other paperwork as well (insurance policies, health insurance and advance health care directive, titles to the house or car). If you feel his will or other paperwork is outdated, ask him about it. Move quickly to get things done. Be his hands and voice and help him finish life well.

Have you ever heard of an ["ethical will?"] ( I think it's a powerful concept. An ethical will can be anything we want it to be: instructions for living, a letter asking forgiveness, historical information about your family background, spiritual heritage, and other pieces of wisdom or advice your loved one would like to leave behind. Ask if he'd like to help write his eulogy or write letters to people that you can transcribe or make a videotape.

Of course your relatives shouldn't be badgering him for gifts, but while this may make you hurt and angry at them, realize that your dad may need them, too. We don't love our family just because they're always there for us or because they're the most upstanding people but because they're part of us. Your dad may want to give to them for his own reasons. If he'd like to offer them certain items, let him do it now. Let him see their appreciation (or lack thereof).

As adult children, we can't always see the bigger picture -- that giving to his nephew is a way he can give back to the brother who died years ago, the one he so misses. Our parents did a lot of living before we ever came in the picture, and many times at death they reach back over the decades and try to reconnect, to make things right.

I have no idea what your father has left you -- or hasn't -- but what I do know is that if you find a quiet moment, you'll see that your biggest legacy is not in the things but what he taught you as a father and a man, and even what caring for him has given you. Make a list on paper of all you've gleaned. You've had the opportunity to know him in his later years. He's taught you about aging, living, and even dying. What gifts.

By focusing on what truly matters, you'll find that you can accept his choices. If he hasn't left you an inheritance, ask him about it now. Don't avoid the topic and hope for the best (you might not get it!). He may not give you the answer you want, but since you're the only one who seems to care for his day-to-day needs, you do have the right to ask.

I hope you can come to him from a place of quiet confidence, deep love, and sense of calm trust. We often get what we project. Remember, what you have with your dad, the journey the two of you have shared, no one can take.