Most parents choose to leave their estates equally to their children. But sometimes, parents intentionally choose to not leave anything to one or more of their children. They may think they have legitimate reasons, like one child has been more financially successful than the others, or not wanting a special needs child to lose government benefits, or not wanting to leave an inheritance to a child with an addiction problem. And sometimes, sadly, 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.
But regardless of the reason, disinheriting a child can be hurtful. It's permanent and will undoubtedly affect that child’s relationship with their siblings. Courts are full of siblings who sue each other over inheritances; even if they don’t sue, it is unlikely they will be having family dinners together. Finances 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. This child may actually need the inheritance now or in the future; fortunes can change quickly, marriages can break up, and people can get sick. Consider that if you disinherit this child, you also disinherit your grandchildren by this child, unless you make specific provision for them in your estate plan.
* You may have a child who is physically, mentally or developmentally disabled who may be entitled to government benefits. Most of these benefits are available only to those with minimal assets and income. But you do not have to disinherit this child. You can establish a Special Needs Trust that is carefully designed to supplement and not jeopardize the benefits provided by local, state, federal or private agencies.
* You may have a child who is irresponsible with money or has an addiction problem. Consider that this child may actually need financial help now or in the future, and may eventually become a responsible and/or sober adult. Instead of disinheriting this child, you can set up a trust and give the trustee discretion in providing or withholding financial assistance.
How you choose to include your children in your estate plan says a good deal about your values and character. Not disinheriting a child who has caused you 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 in your Will or trust and you have since reconciled, you need to update your plan immediately. If your decision to disinherit a child is final, be sure to discuss it with your lawyer; they will know the best way to handle it in your estate plan. Finally, tell your child that you are disinheriting them 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.