Woman working on her estate plan
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By John R. Merlino Jr. Esq.
Founding Attorney

Families are far from perfect. Some children have closer relationships with their parents than their siblings. This is normal and healthy based on each child’s needs.

But in some situations, a parent may have no relationship with a child. Estrangements like this happen for many reasons ranging from personal to financial. Regardless of the reason, a parent must decide how to handle the estrangement in their estate plan.

Why do you need an estate plan?

An estate plan is a set of legally binding instructions for the distribution of your property upon your death. If you die without a will or trust, New York’s intestacy laws determine how your estate gets distributed. For example, if you have a spouse and three children at the time of your death:

  • Your spouse gets $50,000 plus half the remaining estate
  • Your three children share the other half of the remaining estate equally

Suppose your estate was worth $350,000 after paying your debts. Your spouse gets $200,000. Each child receives $50,000.

The main reason for an estate plan is to control your property distribution. Instead of getting distributed according to the intestacy laws, you can distribute your property any way you want.

A will or trust will also help you handle the distribution of specific pieces of property. If you have a car that means a lot to your nephew, you can leave it to him even though he would have been left out of the intestacy laws.

Options for Handling an Estranged Child in Your Estate Plan

You have total control over how your property gets distributed in your estate plan. If you write a valid will leaving your estranged child nothing, something, or everything, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

So the first tip for dealing with an estranged child is to follow your heart. No one can say that you handled it incorrectly because there is no correct answer. More importantly, as long as you were mentally competent when you left your instructions, no one could challenge them in court.

Another tip for handling your estranged child is to leave very clear instructions and explanations. If you intend to disinherit your estranged child, make sure your will or trust says as much. Simply ignoring your estranged child might open the door to a court challenge.

Also, your other children will want an explanation for whatever you do. By leaving instructions, you can explain why you treated the estranged child the way you did.

You have three options when dealing with an estranged child in your estate plan:

Leave the Child Nothing

The choice to disinherit a child is a difficult one. But you can choose to leave your estranged child nothing but your words in your will or trust.

You can disinherit your child without disinheriting your grandchildren. For example, instead of leaving a share of your estate to your son John, you can leave his share to his two children. Just remember that if the grandchildren are minors, John will control their shares.

To solve this problem, you can put their money into a trust. In the trust document, you can state that they receive their money when they turn 18.

Leave the Child Something

You can let bygones be bygones and leave your child something. You can give them an equal share or a smaller share. You can also leave them property, like a car or house, if you think that works better for them.

Leave the Child Something in Trust

Trusts are entities that own and manage assets. A trustee follows your instructions for distributing the assets to the beneficiaries. This structure allows you to restrict how your estranged child accesses their inheritance. For example, if your child has a substance addiction, you can use a trust to manage their inheritance.

Structuring Your Estate Plan

To learn about your options for dealing with an estranged child in your estate plan, contact Merlino & Gonzalez to speak with a real estate and elder planning lawyer in Staten Island, NY.

About the Author
John is a fierce advocate and the office guru for problem-solving and brainstorming. He guides clients through every stage of a real estate transaction from offer to contract, navigating through nerve-shattering home inspection and title clearance concerns, maintaining constant contact with lenders, conducting the actual closing, and continuing to advise clients with regard to any post-closing concerns.  John brings a practical and fair-minded approach to the process which has earned him the respect of his clients and peers.