unequal inheritance

For many individuals, the act of estate planning is a powerful reminder that our property and financial assets will not follow us to the afterlife. Once we start thinking about who should inherit the assets we leave behind, it is not uncommon for questions about unequal inheritance to arise. For those without children, leaving an unequal inheritance to friends, relatives, and loved ones is quite common and rarely results in dispute. However, an unequal inheritance between siblings—which is quite common—can create conflict and breed resentment if not handled properly.

An unequal inheritance is when an estate is divided and transferred unevenly among heirs and beneficiaries. When the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away in 2018, three different Wills were found hidden inside one of her Michigan properties. The disparities between these documents sparked a bitter dispute between her children, who were less than thrilled to be inheriting unequal amounts of Aretha’s assets.

Beyond leaving an unequal inheritance between siblings, some individuals choose to distribute their estate unevenly between their children and charitable organizations. Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, plans to leave most of his billions to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He has already told his three children that they will each be inheriting $10 million, a much smaller dollar amount than what he will be leaving to his charitable organization.

The effects of unequal inheritance in the two aforementioned cases are radically different. On one hand, Aretha Franklin’s children have been bickering publicly as the case advances in probate court. One of her Wills even suggests that her firstborn son should not be considered an heir at all! Imagine discovering that your beyond-famous mother had, at one point, omitted you from her estate plan altogether. You can see how this would spark conflict and catalyze drama.

In the case of Bill and Melinda Gates, however, their children have known for a while that they will not inherit billions. Since their teenage years, the Gates siblings have understood how their parent’s estate would be executed and distributed. It is unlikely that there will be any bickering or conflict about their inheritances when the time comes.

The key difference between these two situations is communication. Communication is key to leaving an unequal inheritance without causing conflict or leaving your loved ones feeling resentful of you and each other.

When talking to your heirs about your estate planning decisions, the key is to explain why you feel your decisions were made in fairness. Has one of your children been your primary caregiver in old age? Have you provided one of your children with more financial support than the others while alive? Is one of your children very wealthy and in less need of financial support than your other children? Whatever your reasoning, it’s important to explain your logic. There is no guarantee that your heirs will accept the explanations given. Heirs may agree on principle, but they may strike later in probate court. To mitigate this, Wills and Trusts can be drafted with certain clauses that address this possibility.

Estate planning is nuanced, and there are so many tools that go into creating a plan that will ultimately accomplish all that you wish. The best course of action is always to work with a qualified estate planning attorney who can guide you through the process of drafting an estate plan, updating your plan as your life unfolds, and administering your estate when the time comes. Contact us today to start planning your estate!

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