As trust and estate litigation attorneys, we have been involved in many will and trust contests in which parents have disinherited one or more of their children. As estate planners, our experience is that children are usually disinherited because they are estranged or have a persistent drug or alcohol problem. In these circumstances, the disinheritance is not unnatural, and the child may even expect it.
This article addresses a less common occurrence: when the child hasn’t done something that often causes a disinheritance, and is shocked when it happens. Here are three ways for a child, through oversight, inadvertence, or lack of common sense, to get themselves disinherited:
If you don’t visit your parents you have a much higher chance of getting disinherited. If your parents don’t see you, they may come to think you don’t care. They may come to imagine that you have concluded that they are not worth your time, that they have nothing to offer, that they are spent, that they are just waiting to die.
As they grow old and infirm and lose cognitive function, many elders become insecure, forgetful, and perhaps a little frightened. In this condition, it’s easy for an aging parent to reach the wrong conclusion about an otherwise loving child who doesn’t stay in touch.
Make visiting your parents a priority. Schedule a regular visit every week or month. If you are too far away to visit, call frequently. Remember birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, their favorite cookies. This is not cunning or manipulative—it’s the right thing to do.
Many people suffer serious physical pain as they grow older. A few brave (or foolish, depending on your beliefs) souls bear the pain. Most medicate with prescription drugs; and some—usually the ones who hate going to the doctor—do it the old fashioned way, with alcohol.
Years ago, a lawyer visited a client dying of cancer. He was clean-shaven and handsomely dressed, and a bottle of Jack Daniels and a tumbler sat on the kitchen table. When he told the lawyer he was dying, the lawyer asked if he was seeing a doctor or taking anything for the pain. He laughed, and said the prescriptions wouldn’t do any more than the whiskey, and that’s how he wanted to go.
If this describes one of your parents, be careful about interfering with their moderate use of drugs or alcohol. The worst thing you can do is try to persuade them to go to rehab.
Often we conclude that parents aren’t acting rationally if they don’t want what we think we would want for ourselves if we were their age. But if we entered a time machine and asked the “you” of thirty years ago “what will you want for yourself in thirty years?” would your answers from the past match your answers today? Probably not.
If we are honest, maybe we are more like our parents than we imagine, and when we reach their age, we may make the same choices.
Leave them alone. Respect their wishes. Don’t let them overdose or drink themselves to death, but short of that, let them decide how to ease the pain.
If you talk excessively about your parents’ money, they may reasonably conclude that you only care about their money. It’s astonishing how many parents have told us about a child complaining that “there will be nothing left for me after you die.”
A woman in her nineties took great pride in her home, which was spotless, beautifully decorated, and filled with art and memorabilia she and her late husband had collected throughout their marriage. She considered disinheriting her daughter because she overheard her say during a visit, “we’ll sell all this after mom is gone.”
You should certainly assist if they ask for help with their finances. But always remember that it’s their money, not yours, that they earned it and may spend it as they choose, and that you are entitled to only their love and affection.
When dealing with our parents, we should reflect on the commonsense wisdom of the past: “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.”