The Three Daughters of King Lear (1875–6) by Gustav Pope in the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man before meeting his untimely death. The origin of this quote is up for debate. Some attribute it to Voltaire. Whether it comes from an Enlightenment philosopher or a comic book turned movie, it’s an idea we like to repeat. But what if we change one word? With great wealth comes great responsibility.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the aging British monarch has decided to abdicate his throne and divide the kingdom between his three daughters based on how much they love him. The two oldest daughters are married, and they make grand professions of love. Goneril goes so far as to say that her father is “dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty.” The youngest, Cordelia, refuses to play her father’s game and says, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.” This enrages the king and he disowns her, setting off a chain of events that lead to deadly consequences.
History is rife with stories about successions gone awry. Look at Jacob and Esau in the Bible. It’s a scene set for disaster: their father loved Esau; their mother loved Jacob. Rebekah conspires with the younger twin to steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob goes to his father Isaac, who is aging and going blind, and pretends to be his brother. Through this act of deception, Jacob is designated as the head of the household and given an abundance of grain and wine. Esau, the firstborn son and thus rightful heir, finds out and begins plotting to kill his brother.
It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a great tragedy. Both examples serve as cautionary tales. We can proceed as if such things would never happen to us, but there’s a reason why King Lear continues to resonate with audiences today. Knowing how to handle great wealth isn’t always cut and clear, and we would be wise to acknowledge that there may be strong emotions or unforeseen circumstances at play.
Imagine this scenario: there is a retired married couple who accumulated some wealth and assets by opening a mom-and-pop restaurant more than 35 years ago and made it a franchise. They had three children. They’re all grown. The oldest is a doctor making a six-figure salary, and he has a spouse who also works in the medical field; together, they have two children. The middle child is a high school teacher who has been living with her partner for 12 years; he has a daughter from a previous relationship who lives with them. The youngest has been working in kitchens ever since she could see above the counter and wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps, to a point; she prefers the art of cooking as opposed to managing day-to-day operations of the franchise; she’s also single and doesn’t want kids.
If we were living in the 19th century, during the era of coverture, all of the inheritance would go to the oldest son. But it’s 2019. Sons are not the automatic beneficiaries, and daughters are no longer property; now they own it. But given each child’s set of circumstances—financial, marital, familial, etc.—is it fair to split their inheritance equally three ways, each getting 33.3 percent?
The oldest has a mountain of college debt but more earning potential than his younger sisters. In the past, the older two have accused their parents of playing favorites with the youngest because she shared their love of food. There’s a little bit of jealousy simmering under the surface, and if it comes to blows, it’s two against one.
Figuring out wealth distribution might bring back memories of word problems in high school algebra. You know, the ones with two trains barreling toward each other down the tracks at different speeds, and you have to figure out when they’d meet.
Transferring wealth isn’t purely logical. It’s emotional. Maybe you’re the one who had to stop your 89-year-old father from buying a convertible when he no longer had a license, and in the fallout, he threatened to cut you out of the will. Maybe your parents owned hundreds of acres of farmland but you nor any of your siblings want to be farmers. What do you do?
Your story doesn’t need to end in division, dissent, or vengeful disinheritance like that found in King Lear. Your story is still being written. With our commitment to preserving your family and business histories, memories, and legacies, we craft compelling, values-driven narratives that create authentic connections—along with empathy and better understanding—between siblings and across generations. The power is in your hands.