Tell Me About It

My siblings are angry because I used my mother’s money to prop up a business

Tell Me About It: I used her savings without her knowledge and paid it all back but now no one is speaking to me

PROBLEM: I am a married father of young children. I worked independently for years in senior managerial positions, but I always knew I would take over the family business from my father. This is a successful medium-sized enterprise and I always felt it was a great privilege to be in this position.

So, a few years ago, after my dad died suddenly, I resigned my post, invested my life savings into the family firm and entered into partnership with my elderly mother. I soon discovered that despite being very successful in his work, my father had an unorthodox approach to business. His record-keeping was appalling, and the finance department was always very shifty when I asked searching questions. I had to make some difficult and uncomfortable decisions which involved rethinking our talent pool and taking the business in new directions to ensure it remained both viable and relevant.

As far as I could, I kept my mother informed of all big decisions. She knew I had access to her personal banking, but when funds were required, I dipped into her savings to a much greater extent than I should have. I believed what I was doing was keeping the business afloat for the benefit of my mother, my own family and my siblings, who would eventually get their share.

About three years ago, my mother discovered the discrepancy in her accounts, and she was livid about my lack of transparency. However, she forgave me, and we agreed on a repayment scheme. All the money is now repaid. My mother died recently and following probate, her estate has been settled. Through interrogation of the accounts, my siblings have discovered the actions I took in relation to my mother’s banking. Despite having repaid my mother, they have accused me of elder abuse. Neither of them has spoken to me since and one of their children who worked in the business has left their position.

My wife is also furious with me. I am grieving my mother and I feel I have lost a lot of what was precious to me. However, I do feel that even though I made some unsavoury decisions, the gamble paid off and the people who are most angry have received an enormous financial benefit.

I don’t know what I can do.

ADVICE: You are grieving for the loss of your mother, which is a very tough time for you, and on top of this you have the estrangement of your family with whom you could share this sadness, so it is even more difficult. The death of a parent and the subsequent reading of wills is often the point of most risk of splitting in a family and this is borne out in your case. Everyone in the family is full of grief and vulnerability and often in this state positions are taken, and words are said, that can have an effect for generations.

The fact that in the end you have made money for everyone is something that may take some time for the family to accept

Your family feel betrayed by your lack of transparency and they are righteously upset at the using of your mother’s bank account without her permission. The fact that in the end you have made money for everyone is something that may take some time for the family to accept as they may feel that this end did not justify the means. It might be worthwhile looking at why you operated in such secrecy and why you felt the financial situation could not be explained to your siblings and mother.

The possibility here is that you did not trust them to make the wise business decision but now they do not trust you because you kept them totally outside the decision-making process. Has there been previous trust issues in the family, or can you trace any type of secrecy to your father’s manner of running the business? It may be that there are patterns in the family, and in the family business, that have gone un-scrutinised for years and now these patterns have risen to the surface and are causing schisms.

It would appear these patterns of secrecy and deceit are present in your own relationships and family as well and you can see this in the reaction your wife had to the disclosure. This needs to be taken seriously, as honesty and trust are part of the foundations that relationships thrive on. Have you really understood the effect your deceit has had on those close to you or are you still justifying it on the basis that everyone profits? You need to earn your wife’s, and your siblings’ trust, through genuine comprehension of both the family patterns and your part in causing hurt and damage. Only when this happens will your family allow you to celebrate your business success and this is something that can contribute to healing.

Family business are notoriously difficult to manage in terms of relationships and without some outside consultancy the relationships can become entangled as business and family hierarchies and loyalties collide. Consider taking on a management consultant that has knowledge and experience of family businesses.