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?”

Continue ReadingLeaving Inheritance Unequally to Heirs

What Is a Marital Trust?

Clients use marital trusts for multiple benefits in their estate plans, including asset allocation, planning for blended families, creditor protection and tax benefits.  If you are married, marital trusts are worth considering in your estate plan.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Guide To Marital Trusts” says that a marital trust is an irrevocable trust that allows you to transfer a deceased spouse’s assets to the surviving spouse at death in a tax efficient manner.  When the surviving spouse dies, the assets in the trust aren’t necessarily part of their estate. That may keep the taxes on their estate lower.

A marital trust is created by one spouse in their trust or wife, and it holds property for the benefit of the surviving spouse.  The trustee of the marital trust can be the surviving spouse, or another person chosen by the creator.

All of the income of the trust is paid to the spouse during their lifetime.  This basically means if the trust is producing money such as dividends, rent and so on, it pays out to the surviving spouse.  This is often a good way to provide an income stream for the surviving spouse without giving them unfettered access to all of the assets.

At the death of the surviving spouse, the remaining trust property can go to the beneficiaries the first spouse designated.  This is especially helpful in blended families where one spouse wants to provide for their spouse, but wants what remains to go to their children.

The trust may also protect assets from creditors and future spouses that the surviving spouse may encounter. It accomplishes this by keeping the assets within the trust and prevents them from freely being taken out by a creditor or predator.

If keeping wealth within your family after you die is important, then a marital trust is an estate planning tool that may help

Reference: Forbes (June 30, 2022) “Guide To Marital Trusts”

Continue ReadingWhat Is a Marital Trust?

What If You Don’t have a Will?

Studies suggest that a majority of adults do not have an estate plan of any kind, even a will.  The issue of what happens when a person doesn’t have a will comes up frequently in our practice.  The answer to the question, which is what I’ll discuss here, provide lots of reasons to have one.  You can see a recent article entitled “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a bit more background, although state processes vary.

First, a will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate.” When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws.  Intestacy sets who your beneficiaries will be since you haven’t chosen them, and generally are next of kin (with some wrinkles). If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

Intestacy rules vary greatly from state to state, especially in a community property state like Texas.  In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A very common exception, which many people don’t know and are surprised to learn, is that if you have children from outside of the current marriage, not everything goes to that spouse.  I frequently encounter families who assume spouse gets everything, regardless of family makeup, and this often leads to conflicts with family.

While practicing in Pennsylvania I actually had a situation in which one spouse died young without children and with living parents.  Not everything goes to the spouse in that situation, but instead, partially to spouse and the rest would have been divided between the surviving spouse and parents.  The surviving spouse was not pleased to learn that.

This may also lead to a difficult result for the beneficiary.  If they have disabilities and are using government benefits, receiving the inheritance may cause them to lose those benefits, which may be critical for that person’s care.  Wills and other estate planning documents can prevent that outcome.

If you don’t have a will, at least in Texas, it may be necessary to have a proceeding to determine who the heirs even are.  This is called an heirship proceeding and can be quite expensive as the court appoints another attorney (who you pay) to look for unknown heirs.  This whole process also adds time and uncertainty to a process which is already difficult due to the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, a will designates a person to handle the estate, often called an executor, and typically names successors should the first named person be unable or unwilling to serve.  In the absence of these directions, the heirs will have to figure it out among themselves, hopefully amicably and without litigation.

Many states also have limited proceedings that may or may not be helpful when a person doesn’t have a will.  For example, Texas has affidavits of heirship which can address retitling of land interests, such as the residence.  However, that won’t help for bank accounts.  Pennsylvania actually has a rule permitting small bank accounts to be distributed to next of kin after the funeral is paid.  That too may help, unless the account is $10,000 and is useless for land.  Many states have small estate proceedings that can work, but in practice are often cumbersome.

A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”  See this article for further ideas:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-are-the-duties-of-an-executor/  

If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Medical Powers of Attorney and other documents appropriate for your state, you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

Continue ReadingWhat If You Don’t have a Will?