When is Disinheriting a Child a Mistake?
Most parents choose to treat their children equally when it comes to inheriting property or money. But sometimes, parents intentionally choose to not leave anything to a child, and the reasons for doing so may vary. One reason could be that a child who is more financially successful than the others and the parent doesn’t feel it’s necessary to leave anything. Another reason may be a desire to prevent a child with special needs from losing government benefits. Or a parent may not want to leave an inheritance to an irresponsible or drug-dependent child for fear the inheritance will be wasted.
Regardless of the reason, disinheriting a child can negatively 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 a close family unit. Money aside, there is symbolic meaning to receiving something from a parent’s estate.
Disinheriting a child for what may seem to be a valid reason may actually be completely unnecessary. For example:
- A child who appears to be more successful financially may have trouble behind the scenes. The child may not be as well of as he or she appears. 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. And if that loved one is receiving government benefits that are needs-based, please know 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 in a lump sum. Instead of disinheriting the child, you can establish a trust and give the trustee discretion in providing or withholding financial assistance. You can dictate any requirements you want the child to meet before receiving funds, and you can choose who the trustee is who will make sure that child receives funds under the appropriate circumstances.
How we choose to include our children in our estate plans has lasting effects, both positive and negative. Choosing not to disinherit a child who has caused grief and heartache sends 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 you wish to disinherit a child, it may be wise to tell that child and explain the reasons why. Doing so may help deter the child from blaming siblings later and may prevent a costly court battle.
Regardless of your desires about how you want to leave an inheritance to your children, grandchildren or other loved ones, we can help. Give us a call to schedule time for a private conversation about your wishes, and we will make sure your wishes are properly documented. And if you are outside of Florida, please contact an experienced Elder Law Attorney (preferably one that is Board Certified in Elder Law) to assist you.
Jason A. Penrod is only the 20th attorney to be Board Certified as an Elder Law Expert by the Florida Bar and the National Elder Law Foundation. He is the founder of Family Elder Law (www.familyelderlaw.com) which has offices in Lakeland, Lake Wales, and Sebring, Florida.