Do my children have to inherit equally?

While there is no hard and fast rule about whether your children should always receive equal shares of their parents’ assets, it is usual for parents to divvy up their property equally among their offspring in order to avoid playing favorites. Recent surveys have shown, however, that many parents are rethinking this formula due to a number of factors. At Surprenant & Beneski, we serve estate planning clients throughout Southeast Massachusetts and Cape Cod, many of whom are dealing with this sensitive issue.

Factors that May Differentiate What Is Equitable from What Is Equal

Though there are times when a child and parent are estranged and a parent makes the difficult choice to disinherit that individual entirely, more often one of the following factors results in special consideration of whether one child should inherit more than another:

1. One Child Has His or Her Own Children

Parents who are also grandparents may take the position that the child with the most mouths to feed needs more resources than the child who lives alone or with a mate only.

Some parents decide to leave special funds in trust for their grandchildren, often for higher education or special training. Interestingly, in a 2018 Merrill Lynch Bank of America/Age Wave study, nearly one in four of those surveyed said a child who has children of his or her own deserves more money than a child who does not.

2. One Child Has Been a Primary Caregiver for the Aging Parent 

In a great many families, one child ends up doing the lion’s share of caregiving for an aging parent — taking the parent shopping, visiting, or to doctor appointments, providing close monitoring if the parent is ill, generally doing the things the parent is no longer able to do independently. 

Sometimes, the youngest child takes this role, sometimes the child who lives in closest proximity or simply has the best relationship with the parent. In the Merrill Lynch survey cited above, two-thirds of those questioned felt that the child who has provided the most care to the parent deserves to inherit more. Of course, this decision is not made by peer pressure which is why our attorneys will help you arrive at the decision that feels appropriate in your particular case.

3. One Child Has Financially Contributed to the Aging Parent Lifestyle

If one child has bought the parent a vehicle, paid for making that parent’s home handicapped accessible, or paid for household help, it may seem appropriate that the generous child should be the recipient of a greater piece of the pie.

4. The Children Have Very Different Incomes or Assets

If one adult child has an extremely high income and lives luxuriously, it may seem fair for the parent to leave this individual a smaller inheritance. The parent may decide that leaving the wealthy child something personal, or of substantial sentimental value, is right, since monetary resources will only be bringing coal to Newcastle. 

On the other hand, if one child is struggling financially, the parent may want to change the course of this individual’s life (and perhaps the life of her or his family members) by providing an infusion of wealth during a crucial period.

5. One Child or Grandchild Has Special Needs

Sharp special needs attorneys, like those at Surprenant & Beneski, will see to it that your special needs child or grandchild remain eligible for government benefits while still having the advantage of a special needs trust. The latter will allow an appointed trustee to distribute funds to help the disabled relative maintain a comfortable lifestyle. Even so, some parents or grandparents of special needs individuals may feel compelled to leave more assets to the loved one who inherently suffers unalterable deprivations.

6. One Child Is a Black Sheep

In too many families, one child has slipped out of the fold to some extent because of an addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, or engaging in criminal behavior. In most cases, this means the child cannot be trusted with money. 

Depending on the specific circumstances, prodigal children may be unreachable or overly dependent, in jail or on the street, still living with the parent, or living in a halfway house. Parents may be very attached to such children, or have written them off; they may want to disinherit them or be dedicated to saving them.

Whatever your feelings, if you are in such a challenging situation, having a compassionate estate planning attorney can be helpful in a number of ways. In terms of inheritance, your attorney can help you to create a spendthrift trust which will provide money for your child’s care while keeping extra money out of his or her pocket. 

7. Some Children Are Stepchildren

In situations in which there is a late remarriage, it is possible to acquire stepchildren when they are already adults, live at a distance, or are seen infrequently. In such cases, a parent may not feel ready to leave a stepchild a large inheritance or even to make that individual a beneficiary at all. There may be a similar reluctance to name even a young stepchild in your will if your spouse’s ex has sole custody and you don’t know this child well.

On the other hand, of course, you may have a stepchild whom you have raised and loved as your own and to whom you want to leave substantial resources.

Decisions Have Consequences, Especially Where Inheritance Is at Stake

As you can see, there are complex emotional issues involved in how you divide your inheritance among your children. Contacting Surprenant & Beneski can ease your pathway as you navigate around the possible minefields of family unrest. Because we have been through similar situations before, we can help to clarify the best options in your unique family. We will work with you so that you leave behind a legacy that is beneficial to those you love and leaves them at peace with one another.