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Ask Anyone

oh brother

I have four siblings. Sadly, we have lost both of our parents, most recently our father. We are all grown and we all live in different states. Needless to say, cleaning out the house and settling the estate has been emotionally difficult, but we are almost through it. Everything was evenly divided among us.

During the clean-up my oldest brother took all the family photos, boxed them up and shipped them home to himself in another state while the rest of us were sorting and boxing and discussing the division of our parents remaining items. After the fact, my sister inquired via email about the family photo albums and my brother came clean, admitting that he had taken them, all of them.

Well, now he has decided that he’d be willing to sell us all copies of the original albums, but we have to pay for them. I am livid with my brother for taking them and now having the gall to try and sell me my own family history. What do you suggest?

Slighted Sibling

The Omniscient One says: There’s no logical reason why three siblings have to pay for a photo album and one sibling gets off with a free copy—and the original, no less. If you all agree to pay for copies, then the combined total cost should be split four ways.

The Straight Skinny: In my family, we’ve all gotten along so well for so long that there’s a tacit understanding that everything will go to hell when our mother dies. Something has to give eventually. It just has to.

To mitigate that future blowout, we’ve taken to dividing up her belongings among us as a form of dinner conversation—often in her presence. (“I want the cherry chest,” says my terrifying older sister at the Easter table; I sneak a look at Mom, who subtly shakes her head no—not happening.) We take pieces of tapes with our initials written on them and stick them to the backs of things: the old rocker Dad refinished for Mom when they were living in Boston and she was expecting her first shild (“I’m surprised David survived the fumes,” she says); the oak card catalogs she uses to sort bits and pieces of her writing and in which she files a three-by-five card for every book she reads; the piano. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my other sister has stuck a piece of tape on the house itself somewhere.

Still, for all these early preventative measures, we know there will be impasses when the day finally comes. There was some trouble when our father died, and something approaching a War between the Aunts when my father’s father died two years before that. And when my mother’s mother died, it turned into another scene in the Tennessee Williams play that my grandmother forever seemed to inhabit. So why should we be exempt? It’s happening to you now; it’ll happen to us soon.

My advice is to give your brother some time. Sure, he’s beeing an ass now. (Maybe he was born an ass, maybe he had asininity thrust upon him.) But if you give him some time, he will realize that he’s being unreasonable. (Is he married? Can you drop a line to his wife asking for her help?) Wait a year; don’t do or say anything to open an even bigger rift than he’s created. As a rule, people are inclined to do the right thing.

If he persists, I say you take Smart Money’s advice.

Smart Money says: Death brings out the worst in people. And your brother is a jerk. Hopefully he’s not a jerk most of the time. I would recommend punching him in the balls (something I’ve always wanted to do to someone…anyone).

Splitting the costs between the four of you is fair, but really, why don’t you just hire someone to break into his house and steal them back. You’ll only need two copies for your non-asshole siblings. After you get what you need, cut the jerk off. Who says you can’t pick your family?

This guy (your brother) is a thief. Oh—don’t forget to have the burglar steal valuables, too. It will help offset the cost of paying him/her and the cost of duplication.

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