The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people take financial actions like postponing retirement and to re-evaluating their estate plans. When it comes to the latter, an issue many grapple with is how—and whether—to equally allocate their assets to their children.
While dividing one’s estate into equal parts seems fair, often children have made different life choices, have different characters, and aren’t in equal life circumstances. A survey conducted by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Age Wave in 2018 found that many Americans don’t want to distribute inheritances to their adult children equally.
For example, 25 percent of respondents said they believed an adult child with their own children should receive more of an inheritance than an adult child with no children. About two-thirds said they believed an adult child who provided care for them should get more that those who did not provide care.
“How do you define equity?” Lisa Hanks, a California-based estate planning lawyer, recently told the New York Times. “It is different for different families.” For many, equity and equally are two different things.
As you consider how you will divide your own estate, you may find that issues of equity are complex and sensitive. For example, you may have one child who you believe will always need extra help, while your other child has a high-paying job in a stable industry. Or, you may have an adult child with special needs who will need expensive care after your death.
However, even in cases where one child may clearly benefit from extra inheritance, other siblings may not always be on board. Unequal inheritances can lead to conflict between siblings when the estate is divided. Some fights become so unmanageable that siblings take each other to court. In some cases, siblings who receive less believe that siblings with a larger share of the inheritance must have manipulated or influenced the parent to leave them more. This can lead to bitterness, distrust, and broken relationships after a parent dies.
Estate planners suggest that when parents create unequal inheritances, they should have a conversation with each child to explain their reasoning. Families also can hire mediators to facilitate discussions about inheritances to help siblings understand their parents’ decisions.
For example, one mediator described to the New York Times a situation where she helped a father and two of his sons, who were financially successful, discuss the father’s desire to leave more money to his third son, who had issues with his finances and health. In the end, the two financially successful sons decided they would prefer for their brother to receive a larger inheritance because they wanted to have a good relationship with him and were concerned that they might otherwise become financially responsible for him later in life.
Navigating an Unequal Inheritance
Here are several situations a financial planner can help you work through if you are considering an unequal distribution of your estate between your children.
- Factoring in an “Early Inheritance”
Some parents provide one child with extra financial support early on, such as paying for graduate school or helping a child with a down payment on a house. To balance out their gifts, parents often want to factor in this type of “early inheritance” into their will.
Experts recommend that parents discuss the early inheritance with their children and document the gifts in their estate plan. If parents have loaned a child money, the will should include a promissory note outlining the amount and terms of the loan, how much has been repaid and whether the balance should be deducted from that child’s share of the estate.
While including past gifts may complicate your estate plan, not acknowledging them in your will can create resentment in children who did not receive substantial financial help from you while you were alive.
- Repaying a Care Provider
In some cases, one adult child served as their parents’ primary caregiver at the end of their life and parents want to reward this child. However, siblings may not be on board with the inequity it could cause in their parents’ estate.
To avoid real or perceived inequities, when the estate is drawn up to compensate a caregiving child, financial planners often advise families to create a personal caregiving agreement that defines the caregiving services and the value of their contribution in the estate, such as extra money to buy a house or more of the estate. As always, parents should also talk about these decisions with their children.
- Taking Care of Stepchildren
Blended families can create added complications when drawing up an estate, as research has found that parents with no stepchildren are much more likely to treat their children equally than families with stepchildren. To ensure assets are distributed as the deceased intended, financial planners recommend being specific in how the estate is set up.
For example, a husband with children from a previous marriage may want to create a trust that provides for his spouse and bequeaths his remaining assets to his biological children after she dies. Alternatively, the husband could specify that certain amounts of his estate should go directly to his children rather than leaving everything to his spouse or name his children beneficiaries of a life insurance policy.
Regardless of careful estate planning, however, inequities can creep in. To best preserve sibling relationships, parents should always lay out detailed estate plans in advance and talk to their adult children frankly about their estate and the reasoning behind their decisions.