In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” You might have strong, healthy relationships with your spouse, children and everyone else in your family. Or there might be relatives you have not seen or spoken to in years. The details differ from family to family, but the feelings of sadness, anger and betrayal are similar in every case of familial estrangement.
Estate planning’s primary purpose is to explain who you want your heirs to be and what you wish them to inherit from your estate. As the testator, you have the power to choose your heirs — and to exclude people you do not want to leave anything, even your children. Despite societal expectations that a person’s spouse should inherit their estate if the spouse survives them and the children inherit if the spouse dies first, you have no legal obligation to do so. You can disinherit one or all of your adult children or leave them unequal inheritances if you choose.
Three things to consider
People do this for several reasons, including having a strained relationship with one of their children — or no relationship at all. Here are three things to keep in mind if you are considering leaving a child or other family member out of your will or trust:
- You need to make your intentions crystal clear to minimize the risk of the disinherited person challenging the validity of your will in probate court. Include an explicit statement that the person (and their descendants, if you wish) will not inherit anything from your estate. Simply failing to mention their name in your will is not enough.
- You can change the terms of your will or write a new one at any time. If you change your mind about one of your heirs, you can add a codicil (a supplementary document) removing them as an heir, or write a new will to that effect.
- Similarly, broken relationships can often be mended. If you reconcile with your relative someday and decide to bequeath them something after all, you can make that change.
You can discuss all these matters with an estate planning attorney. Your lawyer can help you shape your estate plan to suit your final wishes and advise you on how to avoid future familial strife over your decisions.