Estate Planning and Sibling Rivalry

Attorney Christine S. Anderson

May 2013

Equal distribution of assets among children is the most common choice for our estate planning clients with children. On occasion, we work with clients who may have a child who is estranged from the family, and the clients choose to exclude the estranged child. In most of these cases, the entire family is estranged from this child and so there is no adverse effect on the relationship among the siblings. Other clients may want to provide an unequal division among the children following their deaths. In some situations, it is because one child has been successful financially and has less need than the others. Another situation that may lead to an unequal distribution of the estate among the children is when there is a family business that does not include all of the children. Still others have a beloved vacation home that all of the children do not actively visit.

Although the parents may feel that it is obvious to all concerned that the child who has done well financially needs less, it is not always obvious to that child. He or she may feel punished for his or her financial success. While, it may seem self-evident why a bequest of the vacation home to the two children who visit the vacation home makes sense, the other children may feel that the children who are given the vacation home are being unfairly favored by the parents. Business owner clients who have worked hard to create a successful business would never saddle their successors with co-owners who are not involved in the business. The family business is virtually always given only to the children who are involved.

How to address these issues in the estate plan can be challenging. Many times, even if the parents want to treat the children equally, they do not have sufficient other assets to give the children to equalize the bequest of the family business or vacation home. Life insurance can provide funds to equalize the inheritance of the children not getting the business or vacation home, but it is not always affordable or available.

Some adult children have exceptional relationships and are truly unaffected by an unequal disposition of an estate upon a parent's death. Furthermore, providing for an equal distribution of assets among the children will certainly not guarantee that the children will have positive relationships after the death of the parent.

An equal distribution of the estate among the children is not always possible or appropriate. That said, we encourage our clients to take into consideration the legacy that they are leaving in their estate plans, not just in terms of the assets but also the effect the plan will have on the relationships of those left behind. The advice that we share with clients includes not only how to avoid probate and estate taxes, but also how to minimize conflict among the family when they are no longer around to keep the peace. Leaving behind an estate plan that reflects concern for the future relationship of their children with each other is gift that can be as meaningful as any bequest.