Most people work hard to create an estate plan that is as fair as possible, working to avoid any apparent signs of favoritism. However, there are inevitable situations where a child or other heir feels favoritism at work.
If sibling or heir squabbles escalate past the point where they can be resolved, your estate plans may be for naught, and your will, trust, and asset distributions could wind up in probate court.
Fair Estate Planning: Tips To Avoid Favoritism
The goal of any estate plan is to be so complete and detailed that it can’t be picked apart after your death. However, there are things you can do to avoid favoritism in estate planning and create your will or trust(s) in a way that alleviates tension or disputes between heirs once your estate plans are executed.
Divide the estate as equally as possible, despite personality conflicts
If you can divide your estate in an arguably “equal” way, do it. Never mind that you wish you could leave a little extra to one child over another. Unless there are clear, reasonable intentions behind leaving someone more or less, it’s often best to just make it equal.
It is inevitable that you have a more innate or natural bond with one child or heir than another or that a particular child or legitimate heir pushes every button possible. If, however, the personality conflicts are more about different opinions or general values, and less about truly significant historical incidences, criminal activity, or other financial situations driving the decision, you’re best off taking the high road and making the estate distributions equitable as possible.
As mentioned in the intro, an unequally divided estate (or one that shows obvious favoritism) is more likely to be contested and moved into the public probate realm than one that is fairer.
Be clear with why one person was left more than another
Sometimes, it’s essential to leave more money to one person than another. One common example is while creating an estate plan for a child with special needs. There may be a sibling who is the stated caregiver or guardian for that special needs child after you’re gone. If this is the case, leaving the subsequent caregiver additional caregiving funds is a natural solution.
We’ve also had clients who spent thousands or tens of thousands supporting an adult child through rehab for substance abuse or on legal fees through a court trial. There are families where one adult child benefitted from thousands of dollars of support for weddings or grad school, while the other child may never have attended college or gotten married. In these cases, clients may decide to deduct all or a portion of those expenditures from that child’s share of the inheritance, splitting the remainder equally with the remaining child(ren) and heirs.
In cases like these, clear explanations of “why” become essential.
Provide clear explanations of discrepancies
That’s a perfect segue if you know your estate plan will have notable discrepancies. Anytime you’re dividing your estate in a way that is obviously “unequal” between individuals who fall into the same category of “intestate succession” (the order by which the courts determine inheritance in probate court), explanations are your best defense.
Provide clear, transparent explanations about why Person A is getting so much more or less than Person B – and any supporting documentation helps your cause.
Leave the majority to your favorite charities
Is the task of dividing your estate so stressful that it has you consumed with guilt or worry? Perhaps it’s time to revisit the tradition of inheritance altogether. If your family has such fraught dynamics that you feel like leaving money, property, or assets to only a single person or two – or not leaving anything to anyone- that’s okay. It’s your estate.
We have clients with such deep family divides and internal fractures that the estate plan migrates away from the traditional story around “everything passes equally to our children no matter what…” Instead, they migrate toward “heirs get a designated lump sum and the rest is divided between the people, organizations, etc., that brought me joy.”
It’s hard for anyone to argue with an estate that is divided between an individual’s favorite charities or non-profits. Your clear explanations and documentation are there to back your decision if the will is contested by squabbling siblings.
Don’t feel obligated to share the entirety of the estate plan with heirs
We’re often asked about how much information to share about their estate plans with their heirs. Certain things should be discussed with immediate family members or caregivers in the event you’re incapacitated or die. These include:
- Your advanced medical directive and healthcare proxy
- Your Power of Attorney (POA)
- The estate plan’s trustee/executor
- Essential things like where keys are hidden or alarm system codes to access the home to feed pets, take care of general business, etc. in the immediate interim.
- Contact information for key players such as closest friends, estate lawyers, primary healthcare providers, etc.
- And so on
Other than those essentials, you aren’t obligated to share any details about who gets what unless you feel it’s necessary. In fact, revealing too much too soon could cause squabbling amongst the siblings before your estate plan needs to be executed.
Establish a mediator beforehand To Help Avoid Favoritism
If you feel sure that your estate plan will create a negative energy between heirs or that it’s at risk of being contested, it’s wise to establish a mediator and name that person in your plan. In many cases, that role is held by the estate planning attorney, who has so much background information and is so clear about your wishes that siblings or heirs are less likely to contest it. In complicated situations like that, mediators work to navigate everyone’s feelings with respect, allowing them to be seen and heard while supporting the integrity of your estate plan’s intentions.
Tseng Law Firm Helps Clients Avoid Favoritism During the Estate Planning Process
Are you in the process of creating estate plans that may feel unfair or unequal to your heirs? Schedule a consultation with Tseng Law Firm. We’ll help you create an estate plan that is as fair as possible and with clear explanations and supporting documents that support your decision.