When “Equal” is not Always “Fair”

Every parent wants to be fair to their children; avoid showing favoritism, give each the same advantages, and eventually leaving each a fair and equal inheritance. But every parent also knows that there are times when equal is not always fair—a dilemma that is often faced by parents drawing up their will or estate plan. This is exactly the issue that is addressed in this recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Wills: How to Give One Child Less.

The article mentions that there are a number of different reasons why parents may want to give seemingly unequal financial distributions in their wills, “Many parents want to support children who need more financial help, while others want to repay children who have provided important support or caregiving. Some parents already may have helped one child considerably more than another during his or her lifetime, such as paying for a pricey graduate-school education or providing money for a down payment for a house. Other parents are reluctant to reward a particularly difficult or problematic child.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to leave more to one child than another, but problems may arise when children are caught by surprise and feel neglected, unloved or betrayed; this happens most often when children don’t understand the reasons for their parents’ seeming favoritism, and can result in one child choosing to contest your will or trust in court.

The WSJ article recommends a few strategies to avoid these hurt feelings and expensive court proceedings, but the first and best strategy may be to talk to your children about it ahead of time, if possible. Hearing the news (and the reasons behind it) from mom and dad themselves can be much less hurtful than hearing about it from an attorney. Furthermore, telling your children yourself gives you the opportunity to explain your decision in a sensitive and loving manner.

If you still worry that your decision might be contested there are a number of precautions you can take to help ensure your planning documents will hold, including taking steps to prove your mental capacity is sound, creating what the WSJ calls “serial wills,” including a comprehensive no-contest clause in your will and trust, and more. Which method you may choose to employ will depend completely on your unique situation and it is best to obtain the advise of an experienced estate planning attorney.

We all know logically that “equal” is not always “fair,” but the heart does not always understand what seems logical to the head. Breaking the news gently to your kids ahead of time can go a long way toward avoiding hurt feelings later.