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Disinheriting the right way

Many probate laws ensure that surviving spouses and minor children receive an appropriate inheritance from a decedent spouse or parent's estate, sometimes against the wishes of the deceased. Disinheriting a spouse or child may not be possible when a will is contested because state law protects these rightful heirs.

A California attorney estimates that 30 percent of the wills she drafts for clients contain provisions to prevent some family member from sharing in an inheritance. Not every decision to disinherit a relative is rooted in a family dispute. Sometimes dismissed heirs are wealthy enough without the extra assets that could benefit less-affluent relatives.

Estate planning attorneys are aware that will disputes are frequently caused by hurt parties who think they deserve a share of an estate. Nonadult children and spouses have rights that adult children do not.

While it is permissible to disinherit an adult child, most estate planning attorneys do not recommend it. A contested will may take a long time to resolve, delaying asset distribution to other heirs.

When an adult child's disinheritance is planned, attorneys suggest couching the words in the will with a language that does not sting. Disinheritance may also be accomplished by keeping a child's name out of a will. Keep in mind that, during a will dispute, a judge could interpret the missing name as a mistake rather than an intention.

Relatives who are not spouses or young children may also lay claim to a will that does not include their names. A decedent's parents, siblings and extended family are in line to receive estate proceeds when no spouse or children exist.

As a practical matter, estate planning attorneys suggest creating detailed wills so probate courts are clear about intent. When an estate is sizeable, it is advisable to deflect unnecessary litigation with moderate generosity. Leaving a small amount of assets to potentially litigious relatives often prevents future challenges in court.

Source:, "How to Disinherit Loved Ones-And Which You Can't," Feb. 1, 2013

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