Things to Consider Before Disinheriting a Child
Joan Crawford, the movie star, was famously stingy in her will when it came to her four adopted children. She completely excluded her two oldest children, Christina and Christopher, from her will, and her other two children were left just $77,500 each. While Crawford’s legacy seems harsh, the case was by no means unique. It is much more difficult to disinherit an unwilling spouse, but many testators cut out or reduce bequests to one or more children. They must carefully prepare their estates to address likely potential challenges.
Reasons for disinheriting a child
There are a number of reasons for cutting the financial cord. Most often, a parent is driven by the particular needs and situations of their children. For example, one child may be earning a good living, while another may be suffering dire financial hardship. Is an equitable solution likely to be accepted and understood by the more successful siblings? The parent may not be discriminating against rejected heirs, but rather adjusting available funds in order to maximize the share of the one who needs it most.
Another related motive is an effort by a parent to equalize their wealth, which is not unusual. A parent might feel they have already given large amounts to one child during their own lifetime and consider that their estate might be a suitable mechanism to balance out the giving.
On a more troubling note, some parents are responding to childrens’ lifestyle choices or other behavioral problems such as drug or alcohol addictions, financial mismanagement or destructive marriages. Sometimes a parent may worry that a significant inheritance might even enable further antisocial behavior.
An extremely unhappy relationship may lead to partial or full estrangement. The child may have broken off all contact and shown no interest in reconciling with the parent. There can be many reasons behind the estrangement: demands from a son-in-law or daughter-in-law, old resentments, inexplicable scars, or conflicts over child-raising, morality or religion.
Spilling the beans
Parents facing such an uncomfortable decision may wonder: Should we tell our child face-to-face, write a letter or perhaps say nothing during our lifetime and let the chips fall where they may when we pass? There are two schools of thought on this.
Some attorneys advise not to discuss it openly. If you do, the child might react angrily, make unpleasant scenes, grow bitter or bully you to readjust your will. Other experts disagree, arguing that it is preferable to let the child work through the raw emotions now, while they come to terms with your wishes. Unfortunately, though, many children never fully accept being disinherited.
If you leave your family nothing, your next of kin must still receive notice of probate. However, if you name a designated beneficiary, have a co-owner or use a life insurance policy, that information remains private. Unlike with a publicly probated will, no one else needs to know the full details.
Note that the shock tends to be more painful if the money is left to a stranger instead of to another relative. If you plan to leave your worldly goods to your cat-sitter or your favorite charity, that is probably not a conversation you want to have with your child. Also, remember you might change your mind down the road. It is harder to mend fences once you have already had an in-person confrontation.
Laying the groundwork
Bereavement drives a wedge more often than it cures grudges. So take advance precautions to support your heirs’ eventual battle. To ensure this consider the following:
- Don’t use a holographic will or a “form will” from the internet. Get professional advice.
- Leave additional evidence of your wishes in a diary or handwritten notes.
- Discuss your decision with a friend, minister, doctor or rabbi, who could back it up, if needed, in court.
- Give your executor medical records to show your mental competence and sketch out detailed family trees demonstrating your full grasp of your situation.
- Use a separate letter of wishes in conjunction with a will.
- Include a no-contest clause in the will.
- Avoid leaving a modest bequest that may be used to underwrite litigation.
- State whether you are disinheriting your grandchildren as well.
The decision to disinherit family members is complicated, so you will need your attorney’s advice in the process.