The law in any state allows a person with assets to do whatever they want with them in a will or trust. Many adult children, however, believe that they are entitled to inherit their aging parent’s wealth. This sense of entitlement can cause ugly fights after the elder passes, particularly when the family members who do not get an equal distribution of the inherited assets are shocked to learn of this.
Many aging parents consider that distributing their wealth equally among their adult children is the right thing to do. But the law does not require “fair” when the person making the will or trust is competent to decide such matters. Some aging parents choose to make things equal for their heirs, regardless of need. Others give more to the one who has not done well in life and who would otherwise struggle financially after the parent passes. And others choose to give their assets to charities or others entirely outside the family. Their reasoning, which I have heard personally at AgingParents.com with clients, is that they feel anger that the adult children who could inherit do not treat them well. They seek to punish them or make their resentment clear by not leaving them any inheritance, or a reduced one.
In one case, an 90-year-old man had lost his wife and later needed help at home. His son came to the rescue and moved in, not planning to stay long. But over time, and partly because of the pandemic shutdown, his father invited him to stay on for good. He happily took on the role of full-time caregiver, together with his partner. They all worked together well. The son and partner cooked, shopped and cleaned for the dad, drove him to his appointments and provided much needed company. The son had technology work and could do it on a flexible schedule.
After a year of this, the father realized that his daughter was rarely visiting him and she seldom even called to see how he was doing. He was hurt. He decided to change his will and leave most of his assets to his son, with only a relatively small amount to his daughter. He mentioned his change of plans when they had a meeting as a family, by zoom. The daughter was furious. She raged at her brother, accusing him of manipulating their father into giving the brother “her share” of the assets. She thought she was entitled to get half of everything.
The dad did change his will and trust in favor of his son. We encouraged the dad to have a subsequent meeting with both of his children and to explain his reasons. He hesitated. He hated conflict. But we helped him practice what he wanted to say, and he decided to read it at the meeting. We conducted the zoom call for the family. The dad was very clear and quite adamant. He expressed how angry he was that his daughter ignored him and never showed up to help him at all. She had to hear it from his own mouth that he felt emotional and resentful toward her. It was not clear that she would actually accept this. She probably held onto the belief that her brother had pressured her dad into the decision but at least she heard it. She took no responsibility for her failure to visit or help their dad.
There are some life lessons in this case that anyone can learn from. Here are the takeaways:
- Aging parents can be very lonely, particularly when they can no longer drive or get out independently. There may be an unspoken expectation that adult children owe them the respect of visiting and calling regularly. But they don’t ask for this expectation to be met. Instead, they harbor resentment when they don’t get what they want.
- When an aging parent is clear minded enough to change the estate plan, and disinherit any potential heir, they have every right to do so. No one is entitled to an inheritance when the will or trust says they are not. The law does not require a competent elder to do what anyone else thinks is “fair” or equal with regard to potential heirs.
- If you want to ensure that your parent will resent you, don’t visit, don’t call, don’t help them. The risk is that they will express their dissatisfaction with you by changing their will or trust.
- It would be far smoother for all if both the aging parent and their adult children were honest with one another about expectations. “I’m too busy to visit” isn’t going to work when your aging loved one wants you to make the time for them. Pitching in to help them, even when it’s inconvenient, can go a long way to help your aging parent feel respected.
- A word of caution: some elders are not clear-minded and do get manipulated by unscrupulous family members to disinherit everyone but themselves. This is called undue influence and it is a serious legal issue. If you think that is happening, get competent legal advice right away. Things are much murkier on this issue after an elder passes.
Related: Is Your Aging Parent Trusting the Wrong Financial Advisor?