Three mixed race siblings looking at smart phones in the back of the car. Concept for preventing sibling rivalry and resentment.

One dilemma that many parents face when making their estate plan is the question of whether to divide their estate equally among their children. The answer to that question depends heavily on the circumstances, and will vary from family to family. Parents often prefer to divide their estate equally among their children to prevent sibling rivalry and avoid allegations of “Mom always liked you best!” As a general rule, dividing the estate equally can be a good strategy for preventing conflict among beneficiaries. However, there may also be valid reasons to make an unequal distribution—and there is a right and wrong way to go about it.

Reasons to Consider an Unequal Inheritance

There are a variety of reasons parents might choose to give their children an unequal inheritance, and most of them are rooted in love. Common reasons parents offer for dividing their estate unequally between their children include:

  • One child has sacrificed their career to be the caretaker for the parent(s) in their declining years
  • During their lifetime, the parents gave one child more money than the others, such as for tuition, a wedding, a vehicle, a down payment on a house, or to pay off medical debt
  • One child earns significantly less than other siblings
  • One child has special needs or is caring for their own child with special needs
  • One child has been active in the family business, while the other children pursued their own careers
  • One child has a gambling or substance abuse problem, and the parents do not want to contribute to their addiction

Less commonly, a parent will decide to leave one child less of the estate (or disinherit them altogether) as a punishment or effort to exercise control over them. But most of the time, parents who consider leaving their children an unequal inheritance are motivated by a desire to do right by their children. In some cases, treating beneficiaries equally is not the same as treating them fairly.

Sibling Rivalry and Other Potential Pitfalls of Unequal Inheritance

One of the biggest risks of leaving your children unequal amounts in your will is, of course, sibling resentment, envy, and conflict. In the wake of a parent’s death, when children are grieving, it is not uncommon for them to conflate how much a parent left them with how much that parent loved them. Grieving is a complicated process involving many strong emotions, and it is often easier for the bereaved to focus on the perceived unfairness of an inheritance than the painful feelings and unresolved issues of grief.

Unfortunately, all of this can mean that rifts between adult children develop, or existing friction worsens. Sibling rivalry from childhood that seemed to resolve years ago can bubble back to the surface. Without a parent present to act as a mediator, adult siblings may decide to go their separate ways rather than work to resolve their conflict.

In some cases, a child who inherits less may believe that a sibling exerted undue influence over the parent to persuade the parent to favor them in the will. That can lead to probate litigation about the validity of the will. Not only is such litigation costly, it is often contentious, leading to a permanent break between family members.

Of course, most parents hope that their children will draw closer to each other after their death, not become permanently estranged. Estate planning is intended to make life easier for loved ones after a loss, and to promote harmony, not discord. Accordingly, if you decide that it makes sense to leave your beneficiaries different amounts in your will, you need to take steps to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

Preventing Sibling Resentment Through Careful Estate Planning

If you decide that leaving your children unequal amounts in your will is the right thing to do, it is important to discuss your reasoning and goals with your estate planning attorney. Your “why” may very well dictate your “how.”

For instance, let’s suppose that one of your children is a social worker earning $35,000 a year and the others are executives earning well into six figures. You may want to provide your lower-earning child a financial cushion if they someday need it, without seeming to punish the others for their financial success. One way to do so would be to divide the bulk of your estate equally among your children in your will, and use the remainder to create a trust that can make discretionary distributions to any child for their health, education, maintenance, or support. Not only would that provide assurance that your lower-earning child could meet their living expenses, but it would also protect the others in the event that they should suffer an unanticipated reversal of fortunes.

Let’s consider another scenario, in which one of your children has lived with you and cared for you for the last several years, sacrificing their time and resources while their siblings were free to pursue other opportunities. You decide you want to leave your house to that child. You could divide the remainder of the estate equally between all of your children, and convey the house to your caretaker child in your will, specifying that the conveyance is in gratitude for their service to you.

In these and other situations, your estate planning attorney can help you achieve your goals and minimize the risk of disputes between your beneficiaries. Perhaps the most important thing to remember throughout the process is the importance of clear communication with your children. If they understand the rationale behind your choices, they will be much less likely to later misinterpret them as favoritism.

Should You Ever Disinherit a Child Altogether?

Most estate planning attorneys oppose the idea of completely disinheriting a child. In addition to being hurtful, disinheriting your child means that they have nothing to lose by contesting your will. They could file a lawsuit challenging your will, resulting in increased costs, delayed administration of the estate, and inflamed hostility between siblings. A wiser course of action may be to include a “no contest” clause in your will and leave that child a small amount that is still substantial enough that they would not want to risk losing it through an unsuccessful will contest.

Whatever the particulars of your family situation, your likely goals are to provide for your loved ones and to encourage strong bonds between them. Contact Mundahl Law at 763-575-7930 to schedule a consultation about how best to do that through your estate plan.

Categories: Estate Planning