It may sound surprising, but for many people, inheriting wealth is not all they imagined. It can even be stressful.

Inheriting wealth, particularly life-changing sums, can spark financial and emotional reactions, and present challenges that you may never have considered.

Here’s a look at some of the challenges and how to address them. It’s valuable for benefactors to consider these factors as well.

  • Grief: Inherited money, while sometimes gifted while the benefactor is alive, usually comes at a deep personal cost. The personal pain often clouds one’s financial and emotional judgement.

    For example, some heirs deny their inheritance as a way of denying the person’s death. One financial planner worked with a client who inherited $10 million, but didn’t touch it for 20 years, all the while living on a modest salary.

  • Guilt: Experts who work with inherited wealth say that guilt is a powerful and common emotion among heirs. It is often a reason for doing nothing with the inheritance or even disclaiming it altogether.

    The heir may dwell on the question “why do I deserve this?” A person may feel guilty because he is still here, while the benefactor is gone. 

  • Anger: This can come in two forms. Anger often arises as a reaction to a person’s death. 

    Another prospect related to anger has to do with the actual inheritance. One of the heirs may feel that there is unequal or inequitable distribution among multiple heirs. This can be a particularly sticky issue among siblings.

    Heirs sometimes measure the benefactor’s love by the size of the inheritance. Ironically, anger sometimes arises when a person receives more inheritance than they were expecting, making them wonder why they had to live a financially “deprived” life all these years.

  • Inadequacy: Wealth is often created by talented, resourceful, dynamic people. An heir may feel inadequate or unworthy of the inheritance because he or she doesn’t possess the benefactor’s talents.
  • Financially immobilized: People who are not financially competent (commonly people who inherit at a young age) may be paralyzed by what to do with all of their new money. The deceased, for example, may have handled all of the family finances, and now the surviving spouse doesn’t know how to handle things.

    Sometimes such an inexperienced person may spend the money recklessly, resulting in regret or financial hardship down the road.

  • Conflict with spouse: Spouses can disagree about what to do with the inheritance, especially if they have conflicting money personalities. The heir might feel it is his or her money and may not want to share it. Another prospect is that the non-heir may feel inadequate because his or her partner has brought disproportionate wealth into the household.

You may think these issues couldn’t possibly involve my heirs; or as a potential heir you may think “I would never react like that.” But one never knows what might surface within you or others.

Many of these challenges can be minimized or even eliminated if the benefactor does some advanced planning. This may involve setting up trusts to control inheritances, gifting money while still alive, and explaining to heirs what they might receive and why.

But what if you inherit money without adequate preparation from the benefactor?

First, just as you would if you’d won a lottery, step back and wait awhile (say six months) before proceeding. Put the cash in a money market account; don’t sell off inherited stock right away unless there’s a serious risk it will lose significant value; keep the business running. 

Make a spending list. Let your mind roam freely. You’ll likely see how quickly your list eats up the inheritance; then pare it down to realistic priorities.

Think about what you can do with the money that matches your values. Perhaps you want to donate a portion of it, or put some toward future plans — college or retirement.

Seek professional advice. A qualified financial advisor can help you make sound investment decisions, but more importantly, he/she can help you wrestle with the emotional and financial issues you face.

This column is produced by Financial Planning Associates, and is provided by R.Hutton Cobb, a Wachovia Securities financial advisor in Greenville, N.C.