Most parents choose to leave their estates equally to their children. But sometimes, parents intentionally choose to not leave anything to a child. There may be what the parents consider to be a legitimate reason: one child has been more financially successful than the others; not wanting a special needs child to lose government benefits; or not wanting to leave an inheritance to an irresponsible or drug-dependent child. Sometimes a parent wants to disinherit a child who is estranged from the family, or to use disinheritance as a way to get even and have the last word.
Regardless of the reason, disinheriting a child is hurtful, permanent, and will affect that child’s relationship with his or her siblings. The courts are full of siblings who sue each other over inheritances but even if they don’t sue, it is highly unlikely they will be having family dinners together. Money aside, there is symbolic meaning to receiving something from a parent’s estate.
Disinheriting a child may be short-sighted and even completely unnecessary. For example:
* A child who appears to be more successful financially may have trouble behind the scenes. The inheritance may be needed now or in the future: finances can change, marriages can collapse, and people can become ill. And unless specific provision is made for them, grandchildren from this child will also be disinherited.
* A spouse, child, sibling, parent or other loved one who is physically, mentally or developmentally disabled—from birth, illness, injury or even substance abuse—may be entitled to government benefits now or in the future. Most of these benefits are available only to those with very minimal assets and income. But you do not have to disinherit this person. A special needs trust can be carefully designed to supplement and not jeopardize benefits provided by local, state, federal or private agencies.
* A child who is irresponsible with money or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol may not be the ideal candidate to receive an inheritance of any size. But this child may need financial help now or in the future, and may even become a responsible adult. Instead of disinheriting the child, establish a trust and give the trustee discretion in providing or withholding financial assistance; you can stipulate any requirements you want the child to meet.
How we choose to include our children in our estate plans says a good deal about our values and faith. Not disinheriting a child who has caused grief and heartache can convey a message of love and forgiveness, while disinheriting a child, even for what seems to be good cause, can convey a lack of love, anger and resentment.
If you have previously disinherited a child and you have since reconciled, update your plan immediately. If your decision to disinherit a child is final, your attorney will know the best way to handle it. Consider telling your child that you are disinheriting him or her so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Explaining your reasons will allow for honest discussion, may help deter the child from blaming siblings later and may prevent a costly court battle.