I’ve handled over 100 estate disputes, and based upon my experience the following are 5 of the top 10 factors that I’ve seen that lead to people being disinherited from a relative’s or friend’s estate plan. I’ll follow this blog post with another one in the next week or two discussing the final 5 factors. Knowing these factors will hopefully help ensure that you not only avoid being disinherited, but perhaps, more importantly, help ensure that you have deeper and more meaningful relationships with family and friends:
1) Don’t Visit or Call Your Relative
This is far and away the most significant factor that leads to disinheritance. It should be so obvious that it goes without saying. Unfortunately it’s not. I’ve seen countless scenarios where children or other relatives expect that they can go years without visiting a relative, or months without calling a parent, and still expect to be provided for in their estate plan. This is also the most significant factor in the minds of many jurors and judges when they evaluate whether the person executing a will and/or trust truly meant to disinherit a person, or whether he did so as a product of undue influence.
2) Threaten Not To Visit Your Relative Unless He Does XYZ
This should seem obvious but it’s not. Consequently, many relatives subtly threaten or pressure other relatives in various ways, including by extremely subtle insinuations that they’re “too busy to visit” unless XYZ occurs. The problem arises in two scenarios: first, where subtle threats are successful and they embolden the threatener until the parent reaches a breaking point and reacts by disinheriting the threatener; or two, where an elderly relative’s physical and emotional capacities for patience have degenerated due to natural aging processes, and therefore he’s much more easily “ticked off” than before, and reacts by disinheriting the threatener. I litigated a case several years ago where a daughter threatened not to visit her father anymore unless he did XYZ; the result was years of litigation and enormous sums of money spent on legal fees, all of which could have been avoided if she had simply minded her words.
3) Be Presumptuous With The Relative’s Money
As a relative ages, some unsavory people start to see dollar signs behind everything the relative does with his money. For example, if an elderly parent in his late 80s buys a new car, a child may think: “what a waste; he doesn’t need a new car because he’ll probably pass away in a few years.” Keep something important in mind: it’s your relative’s money and he can do whatever he darn well pleases with it up until the moment he’s dead. There’s no need for children to make remarks about how things are “too expensive” or ask “do you really need that.” Now, I’m not talking about scenarios where a parent has fallen under the undue influence of another unethical person, or where a parent has lost the mental capacity to make prudent decisions with his money (in those cases relatives should intervene). My point is that many acts of disinheritance could be avoided if children and other relatives showed the same deference to elderly relatives (who are still of sound mind) with regards to finances as they did when the person was younger.
4) Argue With A Relative About Minor Things
Who cares what color mom painted her family room? Who cares if dad decided to give nephew Jimmy an extra $20 for gas money when he came to visit because Jimmy recently lost his job? Who cares that the old matchbox cars you thought dad was saving for your kids were really sold at a recent garage sale? Are any of these really life-altering events worth triggering a conflict with a relative about? I’ve seen close to a dozen estate disputes triggered in part by spats over the decorations in a house. Many times it’s wiser to just let the small things go rather than trigger an argument about them with a relative. Almost every argument about minor things arises as a result of someone speaking angrily in the heat of the moment, whereas if the person paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and thoughtfully reflected for several seconds, he would realize the wisdom of holding his tongue.
5) Prematurely Clean Out Your Parent’s House
I’m talking here about scenarios where a parent is declining and will likely pass in the next year or two, and a child tries to get a “jump start” on making the estate administration process easier by removing items from the parent’s house. I have seen this enrage parents and lead to disinheritance. Usually, it’s not so much the removal of the items per se that leads to the anger; rather, it’s the signal that the child is acting presumptively, or that he sees his parent’s passing as a “imminent” reality (which it may in fact be, but the message being communicated to the parent by the child is one of disrespect and inappropriate presumption).