Leaving Inheritance Unequally to Heirs

Clients occasionally ask to create estate plans leaving property to beneficiaries who are not their natural heirs (next of kin). When they do, it might be because of estrangement, or because of the involvement of that heir’s family (think in-laws), because one of the heirs doesn’t need the money, because of how they might spend once received or because they do not have close natural heirs.  When it comes to estate planning, equal isn’t the same as fair, explains the article “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?” from Advisor Perspectives.

The first will I ever drafted as a law student had this issue.  The elderly mother wanted to leave everything she had to two of her four children.  The two she wanted to provide for lived far away, had very few assets, but still helped mom with her bills or spent time with her.  The two remaining children were much better off, but also spent far less time with her despite living in the same city.

She loved her children equally, but recognized that the value of the inheritance was different for the children who supported and who were in need compared to the two who did not support her and were self-sufficient.  In her case, I drafted the will leaving everything to the two supportive daughters, and we used ethical will language to explain the reason why she didn’t leave everything to all four. (see here for info on an ethical will: https://www.galliganmanning.com/estate-planning-attorneys-recommend-that-clients-consider-writing-an-ethical-will-or-legacy-letter/)

But, that solution doesn’t always work, especially where the heirs don’t get along, or would become suspicious of each other.  This is exacerbated where a child is being cut out for reasons like substance abuse or family difficulties.  So, here are a few things to consider when removing a natural heir from your estate plan or substantially reducing their share.

Be Direct. Clients often are worried about hurting the feelings of the heir they cut out, and so don’t want to be direct.  I handled an estate of a client who reduced the share of one child compared to the other.  This was a very complicated estate, and the attorney who prepared the last estate plan made a subtle change in a very complex document so that one child wouldn’t get a particular trust fund and the other would.

The estate turned out better than anticipated, but the problem with a subtle cutting out is the child doesn’t believe its true or that is what their parent wanted.  They don’t believe mom or dad made this choice, and instead they believe the other child (who typically is going to be the executor in this situation) is cheating them, unduly influenced them, the attorney made a mistake or that mom or dad lost capacity.  This leads the fight directly from one beneficiary to the other.

Instead, being clear and direct about your intentions directs the beneficiary’s focus on what you wanted (which is where estate planning should be focused) instead of looking for ways they wronged.  The law allows you to leave the property to whom you want, so better to be clear about your intentions then to leave your family to fight over it.

Use a Trust. The value of the trust in this situation varies a bit amongst the states, but generally stated, using a trust is better than a will when not leaving everything to your natural heirs.  Wills are very public, and depending on your state may require notice to your heirs, whether or not they are a beneficiary.  Trusts can both make the administration more private and can avoid fighting.  Trustees also often have more power to close the trust or handle disputes than an executor who is handling a will.

Leave Property in a Different Way. In some cases, clients want to remove a beneficiary because of a concern over the child’s receipt of assets.  For example, if a child is bad with finances, has creditors, a messy marriage, substance abuse issues and so on.  It is a situation where the emphasis isn’t “I want to leave everything to two of my three children,” but an instance where “I don’t want to give one money, so it has to go to the other two.”   In this case, it’s possible that you could still leave the difficult child an inheritance, but do so in a way to protect the inheritance and the beneficiary from the money.

For example, I have regularly written blogs about leaving inheritance in trust for a beneficiary and we regularly draft estate plans using them.  If the problem is spending habits or addiction, you could leave the inheritance to a child in a trust and leave someone else in charge of the trust.  That trustee could spend the money on their behalf so that the beneficiary receives the value of the inheritance without direct control, which is where the problems arise.

Similarly, beneficiaries who have disabilities and may use government benefits could receive a trust which keeps the assets outside of their control (so not countable for their benefits) but is still available should they need it.  Likewise, leaving property in a trust to a child where you are concerned about divorce helps protect the property by keeping it separate from the marriage.

You can see this article for more details and ideas on how trusts help beneficiaries:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/protecting-inheritance-from-childs-divorce/

In sum, the reason a client wants to remove a beneficiary might be addressable in a different way so that they can still receive their inheritance.

None of these are perfect solutions, but are worth considering for your family if you wish to remove or reduce an heirs share.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (Aug. 22, 2022) “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?”

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What’s the Difference between a Living Will and a DNR?

Clients occasionally ask about “DNRs” and whether we prepared them as part of the estate plan during our consultations.  We do not, but we do prepare living wills.[i] A living will and a Do Not Resuscitate Order, known as a DNR, are very different documents. However, many people confuse the two. They both address end of life issues and are used in different settings, according to the article “One Senior Place: Know the difference between ‘living will’ and ‘do not resuscitate’” from Florida Today.

As a quick aside, many states articulate medical decision making differently, and that comes out in estate planning.  For example, some states have advanced care directives with more exhaustive instructions, others are very simplistic.  For this blog’s purposes, I’m focusing on living will versus DNR.

What is a Living Will?

A living will is a statement describing a person’s wishes about receiving life-sustaining medical treatment in case of a terminal illness or irreversible if the condition is incurable. It is used when you can’t speak for yourself and gives guidance to a decision-maker who will act on your behalf.  This includes choices such as whether to continue the use of artificial respiration, feeding or hydration tubes or other artificial means to prolong life.

The living will is used to make your wishes clear to loved ones and to physicians. It is prepared by an estate planning or elder law attorney, often when having an estate plan created or updated. It will be used if and when the situation arises.

What is a DNR?

A DNR is a medical directive used to convey wishes to not be resuscitated in the event of respiratory or cardiac arrest. This document needs to be signed by both the patient and their physician. It’s often printed on brightly colored paper, so it can be easily found in an emergency.

To draw the distinction a little more clearly, the living will comes into play when the doctors have done what they can and nothing else is expected to help (the terminal condition) in which case your wishes are follow, and the DNR is a request not to try and resuscitate.  Most people if they are in my office want the living will, not the DNR.

The DNR should be placed in a location where it can be easily and quickly found. In nursing homes, this is typically at the head or foot of the bed. At home, it’s often posted on the refrigerator.  It is also often used in hospital settings.  The DNR needs to be immediately available to ensure that the patient’s last wishes are honored.

When the DNR is in effect and easily found, the emergency responders will not initiate CPR if they find the patient in cardiopulmonary arrest or respiratory arrest. They may instead provide comfort care, including administering oxygen and pain management.  To be clearer, a DNR doesn’t mean doctors won’t treat you, but it means they won’t resuscitate in the event of arrest.

If a person is admitted to the hospital, their living will is placed on the chart so that it can be followed appropriately. Once a clinical determination of a terminal and irreversible condition has been made, the terms of the living will are followed.

As one more final point, clients sometimes confuse the medical power of attorney and living will.  Mary did an excellent blog cover the basics of each, their differences, and why having both is beneficial. You can find that here:


Reference: Florida Today (July 19, 2022) “One Senior Place: Know the difference between ‘living will’ and ‘do not resuscitate’”

[i] In Texas, we use a “Directive to Physicians.”  This is largely analogous to living wills in other jurisdictions.  Since I’m writing online and to more than just a Texas audience, I’ll use the more generic term of living will.

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How Do I Store Estate Planning Documents?

It’s a common series of events: an elderly parent is rushed to the hospital and once children are notified, the frantic search for the estate planning documents starts. It’s easily avoided with planning and communication, according to an article from The News-Enterprise titled “Give thought to storing your estate papers.” However, just because the solution is simple doesn’t mean most people address it.

As a general rule, estate planning documents should be kept together in a fire and waterproof container in a location known to and accessible by fiduciaries, and copies of some documents should be given to the fiduciaries in advance.

Most people think of bank safety deposit boxes for storage. However, it’s not a good location for several reasons. Individuals may not have access to the contents of the safe deposit box unless they are named on the account. Often a court process is necessary for permission to open a safety deposit box if no one is named on the account.

Even with their names on the account, emergencies don’t follow bankers’ hours and access may be difficult. Further, what if the Power of Attorney giving the person the ability to access the safe deposit box is inside the safe deposit box or the principal has died and the Will is in the box.   Bank officials are not likely to be willing to open the box to an unknown person and proof of that person’s authority is in the box.  This is like locking the key in the safe.

Even further, COVID and the economy have led many banks to close or not offer safety deposit boxes.  Banks don’t want to maintain as many brick and mortar locations, so that means safety deposit boxes have to go.

When you store estate planning documents, a well-organized binder of documents in a fire and waterproof container at home makes the most sense.

Certain documents should be given in advance to certain organizations or individuals.  For instance, health care documents, like a Medical Power of Attorney, Directive to Physicians (Living Will) and HIPAA authorizations, may be given to your agents, as well as to your primary care physician or to the medical facility if you go in for a procedure.  This way, agents have the necessary documentation should an emergency occur, and medical systems can add the documents to their file for you.  This way everyone (especially medical providers) are on the same page about your wishes and who will speak on your behalf.

Mary touched on other items that shouldn’t be kept in a safety deposit box in this article.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/things-you-should-not-keep-in-your-safe-deposit-box/  

Financial Powers of Attorney should be given to each financial institution or agency in preparation for use, close in time to when you expect to need it.

This may feel onerous, however, imagine the same hours spent communicating with banks plus the immense stress if the need to use it is time sensitive. Banks often want to review POA’s in advance of their use before accepting them, and that may take several weeks.

If your estate plan includes a trust, you’ll want your trustees’ to have a copy when you are ready to give it to them, and the original can be kept safe with your documents.

Wills are treated differently than POA documents. Wills are usually kept at home and not filed anywhere until after death.

Also, with all documents, especially the Will, it is important to track and keep safe the originals.  You may sometimes be able to probate copies of Wills, but it’s better to keep the original secure and avoid the need to probate a copy.  This is less critical for other documents, but the same policy holds.

Having estate planning documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is the first step. Step two is ensuring they are safely and properly stored, so they are ready for use when needed.

Reference: The Times-Enterprise (June 11, 2022) “Give thought to storing your estate papers”

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