In most families, parents choose to leave their estate equally to their children. But sometimes, parents intentionally choose to disinherit a child and cut them out of their estate completely. You may have, what you believe to be legitimate reason to do this: one child is more financially successful than the others; not wanting a special needs child to lose government benefits; or not wanting to leave an inheritance to what you believe is an irresponsible child. Sometimes a parent wants to disinherit a child who is estranged from the family, or to use disinheritance to get even and have the last word.

Regardless of the reason, disinheriting a child is permanent, can be hurtful, and will affect that child’s relationship with his or her siblings. The courts are full of siblings who sue each other over inheritances. Whether they sue or not, it is highly unlikely they will be having family dinners together. Money 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:

Financially Successful Child

A child who appears to be more successful financially may have trouble behind the scenes. The inheritance may be needed now or in the future: finances can change, marriages can collapse, and people can become ill. Keep in mind that unless specific provisions are made for them, your grandchildren from this child will also be disinherited.

Disabled Child

A spouse, child, sibling, parent or other loved one who is physically, mentally, or developmentally disabled—from birth, illness, injury, or substance abuse—may be entitled to government benefits now or in the future. Most of these benefits are available only to those with very minimal assets and income. This does NOT mean you have to disinherit this person. A special needs trust can be carefully designed to supplement without jeopardizing the benefits provided by local, state, federal or private agencies.

Irresponsible Child

A child who is irresponsible with money, whether due to an addiction or other reasons, may not be the ideal candidate to receive an inheritance of any size. But this child may need financial help now or in the future and may even become a responsible adult. Instead of disinheriting the child, establish a trust and give the Trustee discretion to provide or withhold financial assistance.

Perhaps a Smaller Inheritance

You may want to consider leaving the child a “token gift” in the form of a smaller share of the inheritance.  Although they may not be happy with the amount you are gifting, you are still recognizing them in your estate plan.  Leaving them nothing, may in turn give them nothing to lose by filing a Will contest action against your estate.  Consider leaving them something, no matter how small, combined with the inclusion of a “No-Contest Clause” in your estate planning documents. The gift would be completely taken away if they contest your estate plan – perhaps giving them reason to think twice.

If you have previously disinherited a child and you have since reconciled, update your plan immediately. Since disinheriting a child is final, your attorney will know the best way to handle it.  In Massachusetts, you have the right to decide who will inherit from your estate.  However, if you are going to disinherit a child, you need to be sure that it is done correctly, or the child may have a legal claim to inherit more than you intended.

How we choose to include our children in our estate plans says a good deal about our values. Disinheriting a child, even for what seems to be good cause, can convey a lack of love, anger and resentment while not disinheriting a child, especially one who has caused grief and heartache, can convey a message of love and forgiveness.

Founded by a nurse attorney and with offices in Acton, Burlington, and Sudbury, Massachusetts, Generations Law Group helps families navigate the complex areas of elder law and estate planning to inform and protect loved ones of every generation.


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