Estate planners use the term "natural objects of one's bounty" to refer to those individuals who would be expected to receive a share of a person's estate upon his or her death.
Normally, the natural objects of a person's bounty are members of the immediate family who would take a share of the estate if the person died without a will. For example, if a woman has a husband and three children, those four individuals are presumed to be the natural objects of her bounty.
In the majority of cases, children expect to take equal shares of their parent's estate. There are occasions, however, when a parent decides to leave more of the estate to one child than the others or to disinherit one child completely. A parent can legally disinherit a child in all states except Louisiana. This article describes reasons why a parent might consider disinheriting a child and suggests some less drastic alternatives that parents might consider.
Disinheritance of a child is not as rare as some might think. Here are some reasons a parent might have for omitting a child from his or her will.
- Lack of need. A parent may exclude a child from the will because the other children are more in need of assistance. For example, if the children are a brain surgeon, a social worker, and an undiscovered artist, the parent may leave everything to the social worker and the artist because the brain surgeon is able amply to provide for her own family.
- Child provided for already. A parent may have provided more assistance to one child than to the other children during life. For example, if the parents put the brain surgeon through college, medical school, and other training, the parents may feel that child has already received her share of the family's wealth.
- Dependent parent. An elderly father lives with his daughter and her family in his declining years. She takes care of his affairs, drives him to medical appointments, and otherwise provides for his needs. If it were not for the daughter's support, the father would be forced to live in a nursing home. Two sons live out of state and rarely visit their father. In gratitude for his daughter's assistance, the father may decide to leave all his property to her, with the sons taking little or nothing.
- Estrangement. A father has two sons and a daughter. The daughter and one son excelled in school, attended college, and followed in their father's footsteps of military service. The other son dropped out of high school and lived with a series of women while holding odd jobs. The father, a high-ranking officer, believes that the son's failures reflect poorly on their entire family. The father advises the son that he is not welcome in the family any longer. The son drifts away to another state and the estrangement lasts for years. The father leaves all his estate to the successful son and daughter, completely omitting the other son.
- Disabled child. A family has three children, one of whom has autism. It is not clear whether the child with autism will ever be able to lead an independent life. The parents' greatest fear is what might happen to their son after they are both dead. Rather than dividing up their property into three equal shares, the parents decide to leave all or most of their property in a special needs trust for the son with autism.
- Controlling parent. A domineering mother has one child, a son. During his entire life, the son never failed to live up to his mother's high expectations. After college and law school, the son falls in love with a free-spirited woman who takes drugs on occasion and makes a meager living writing poetry and short stories. The mother strongly disapproves of the relationship and disinherits her son because the son marries the woman without her consent. The mother leaves her entire estate to nieces and nephews.
- Work ethic. A parent from a poor background puts himself through college and graduate school. He founds a company and makes millions with a public offering. The father believes that his children should make the same sort of effort that he did rather than living off his wealth for the rest of their lives. The father leaves $100,000 to each child and donates the rest to charity.
The disinheritance of a child is not to be taken lightly because it can be an intensely emotional step on both sides. Parents who make a will disinheriting a child may feel guilty about it for the rest of their lives. A child who does not find out about being disinherited until after the parent's death may be devastated to learn of the parent's rejection.
Keep in mind that a will does not become effective until the testator dies. Many things can take place during the interim period. For example, a mother and daughter who have been estranged for years may reconcile in the days or hours before the mother's death. The mother may state in front of witnesses in her hospital room that she regrets disinheriting her daughter and that she now wishes for the daughter to share in her estate. Unless the mother revokes or amends her will, however, her oral statements cannot vary the terms of the written will.
Irreconcilable differences cause a father to disinherit a 20-year-old son and all the son's descendants. All his property is left to two other children. Subsequently, the son marries and has a child. The birth of the grandchild changes everything. The father now wants the disinherited son's share to go to the grandchild. If time permits and the father does not procrastinate, he can execute a codicil to the will that provides for the grandchild. If the will is not amended, the both the child and the grandchild will be omitted.
Some say that disinheriting a child is unnatural or even immoral. It is advisable not to judge, however, because looking at a family situation from the outside in does not always reveal the true picture. Even if everyone involved agrees that the disinheritance of a child is unfair, the parent has the right to dispose of his or her property in any legal manner in which he or she sees fit.
Carla Neeley Freitag is an attorney and published author who provides tax research and writing services to other attorneys. To learn more about the tax research services Ms. Freitag offers, visit http://www.taxresearchandwriting.com/ Her website also contains articles and other resources useful to the tax researcher.