Should You Disinherit a Child?

March 9, 2023 Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz
Family rifts sometimes lead to estrangement—resulting in thoughts of disinheritance. But consider the consequences before you exclude a loved one from your estate.

Dear Carrie,

I'm estranged from one of my three children. Our rift has lasted for years, and I've lost hope for reconciliation. I'm now considering excluding him from my estate plan. Am I wrong for contemplating this?

Dear Reader,

Before I get into the specifics of your question, I'd like to emphasize that estate planning involves more than just money—it's about your legacy. 

Yes, it's your opportunity to financially provide for the people you care about most, but it's also a way for you to express your values and vision for the future.

Before you finalize any decisions, I encourage you to think about how your planning may affect the way you want to be remembered.

Fair is typically equal…

In general, I believe equal distribution among children is the best and fairest approach for a couple of reasons.

First, it's pretty much impossible to accurately predict the future. One child may be more financially secure today, but such circumstances can easily change over time. Similarly, one child might strike you as perpetually irresponsible, only to mature later.

My other, and equally important, reason for believing that fair generally means equal is the powerful emotional message attached to an inheritance. For an heir, money can easily become a symbol of love. When one child receives less or nothing at all, they could interpret it as an indictment of the relationship. I've heard countless stories where this has been the case—and the resulting pain can last a lifetime.

…but there are valid exceptions

While equal distribution can work for many families, there are instances in which that just doesn't seem right. 

For example, let's say a parent has provided more financial support to one child during their lifetime. In that case, it's understandable that they might want to leave commensurately more to the other children in their estate plan. Or perhaps one child has special needs and simply requires more funds to sustain themselves. Blended families, in particular, can face special challenges that may call for creative solutions.

The situation you describe with your son might be another situation in which the equal distribution of your estate feels unworkable. When a relationship has deteriorated beyond reasonable hope of repair, disinheritance may seem like a natural extension of that estrangement. However, there may be other solutions worth considering, such as passing your son's share of your estate directly to his children, if he has any.

Consult with an attorney

Once you've decided how you want to proceed, it's essential to work with an experienced estate attorney. I certainly can't provide legal advice, but your attorney may advise you to rely more on beneficiary forms and trusts rather than a will; a will goes through probate, and your son potentially could contest it. In any case, your attorney's job is to help you articulate your wishes and ensure they are carried out.

Make your intentions clear

This is probably the most important part of all: Regardless of what you decide, try your hardest to clearly explain your thinking to all of your heirs while you're still alive. 

Whether distributions are equal or not, I always advise parents to discuss their decisions with their children. Not only is it the best way to prevent misunderstandings and protect your family from unpleasant surprises after you're gone, but it also allows you the opportunity to share your vision.

For example, you can explain your rationale for leaving an equal amount to children with different financial situations. The same holds true if you decide to provide for each grandchild—or leave a portion of your wealth to charity, for that matter.

In your case, you may not want or even be able to communicate with your estranged son, making it all the more critical to consult your attorney and be clear about your intentions. That way, there will be a record of your reasons for the estate's distribution that can be shared with your son when the time comes.

When passing on wealth to your heirs, there are no rights and wrongs. It's your money, and you're entitled to do with it as you please. My hope, though, is that you understand the emotional message you're sending—and appreciate the permanence of that decision.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

This information does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal, or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner, or investment manager.