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Unequal Inheritances

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When is it appropriate, even fair, to leave assets unequally to your beneficiaries? How do you avoid family conflict?

In this case, one brother left New York and had nothing to do with his brother for the rest of their lives. Unequal inheritances almost always lead to poor feelings between siblings, says a recent article “Where There’s a Will, There Can Be a War” from Next Avenue.

Wills have a way of frustrating a basic desire for equal treatment among siblings. If an older sibling works in the family business and receives full control of it in the will, siblings who inherit non-voting stock are likely to feel slighted, even if they never set foot in the business. Can this be avoided?

There are a few ways to avoid this kind of outcome. One option is to name each child as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy equal to the value of the stock passed to the oldest child. In this way, all children will feel they have been fairly treated.

If one child lives closest to the parents and takes on their care in their later years, the parents often leave this child the majority of their estate. It would be helpful for parents to explain this to the other siblings, so they understand why this has been done. A family meeting in person or online to explain the parent’s decision may be helpful. This gives the children time to process the information. Learning it for the first time after the parents die can be a surprise. Combining the surprise with grief is never a good idea.

For some families, an estate planning attorney can be helpful to serve as a mediator and/or buffer when this news is shared.

In some states, wills and trusts can include no-contest clauses. These forbid beneficiaries to receive any inheritance, if they challenge the will after the death of the parent. If one child receives more than another child, the other child could lose the smaller amount if they contest the will. Some attorneys recommend leaving the children enough to make it worth their while not to engage in litigation.

When unequal is fair. There are times when uneven inheritances are entirely fair. One child may have a substance abuse issue, or one may earn a six-figure salary while the other is eking out a living in a low-paying position. The parents may wish to leave more to a struggling family member and the other child may actually be relieved because the sibling will not need their financial assistance. A conversation with the family may eliminate confusion and clarify intent.

In all cases, the heirs and those who expect to be heirs must remember the estate planning attorney who creates the will or trust works for the parent and not for them. It’s the estate planning attorney’s role to counsel their clients, which they can do best if they have the complete picture of how the family dynamics operate.

 

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