Berman & Asbel, LLP

Can you disinherit an adult child?

Whether you have a large estate or a small one, you have every right to dispose of it after your death in the way you wish. There are laws on the books that limit that right to some extent -- you can't disinherit a living spouse or your minor children -- but once your kids are grown up, do you have to leave them equal shares of your estate? Could you intentionally leave nothing to one or more of your grown children?

If you follow the news, you probably already know that you can. Warren Buffet, the CEO of the investment fund Berkshire Hathaway Inc., decided long ago that he wanted to disinherit his children because he believes that providing them with a large inheritance would not be in their best interest.

Of course, there are other reasons you might want to leave an unequal inheritance to your adult children, or even to disinherit one or more of them. You may not trust or have any relationship with one or more of your children. Or, one child might be far more financially successful than the others, making it reasonable to divide any inheritance between the others.

Whatever your personal reasons, the fact is a disinheritance can cause hurt feelings -- and sometimes will contests. Here are a few things to keep in mind during your estate planning:

  • Be thoughtful about your decision to disinherit someone. If you think you have good reasons for your decision and don't intend to hurt the disinherited child, explain your position while you're alive.
  • Don't just leave the name of the person you disinherit out of your will. Courts may assume the omission was a mistake.
  • Be gentle in the wording. Unless you update your will regularly, keep in mind that the circumstances leading to a dispute with a child may change, but what's in your estate plan might not.
  • Consider leaving your child a small, personal gift. If your child doesn't feel completely overlooked, the unequal share in the inheritance may not really matter. Doing this could deter an expensive probate battle among your adult children.

An experienced estate planning lawyer can help you handle the legal aspects of leaving your estate to whom you wish, but you should think carefully about your reasons and the possible emotional repercussions of your actions. The decision is yours.

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