Is equal always fair? How can you avoid playing favorites in your estate plan? The most obvious approach is to split everything equally. But suppose your children’s circumstances are vastly different? In those cases, treating your children “equally” in your estate plan may not necessarily be the same as treating them “fairly.” Here are just a few situations when dividing everything equally may not be the best solution:
- Scenario 1: One child is far more successful financially. Example: Child A is making a killing on Wall Street as an investment banker. Child B, just as hardworking, has made teaching high school English his life’s work. If you split your assets “equally,” B may feel slighted, and miss out on money he could legitimately put to good use. If you give the financier less, he may feel rejected and punished for being successful, despite the fact that he does not need the money.
- Scenario 2: Child A is fiscally responsible. Child B makes bad financial decisions and seems always to be in dire financial straits. B may be immature, or may have a drug of mental health issue. You know that if A gets his inheritance as a lump sum up front, he’ll manage it wisely. But you hesitate to give B his inheritance all at once, and would prefer to put it in trust so that the trustee has oversight over how it is used. Will B understand why he is being treated differently? Maybe. Will he resent his sibling who is getting his inheritance up front? Quite possibly.
- Scenario 3: Child A is healthy, but Child B has a disability or lifelong medical issues. Depending on B’s circumstances, you may want to leave him more than you leave A. If you expect B will need federal benefits in the future, you may want to put B’s funds in a special needs trust. Despite the unequal treatment, the need for this arrangement is likely to be understood by both children. But that does not eliminate the issue of who gets to manage child B’s trust. Will your healthy child want to be his brother’s or sister’s keeper, or consider it a burden?
- Scenario 4: Child A has worked since the teenage years, put himself through school and never asked you for a penny. On the other hand, you gave Child B $200,000 for college tuition and room and board, and you recently gave him $50,000 as a down payment for a home. Splitting your assets equally at death between the two of them might be great for B, but is it really “fair”? Instead of equal distributions, you may want to consider the gifts you’ve made to B over the years as a kind of early inheritance, and deduct that amount from what you are leaving B when you pass away.
- Scenario 5: Over the years Child A has been caring for you, taking you to your doctors’ appointments, checking up on you by phone and in person, helping you with your paperwork and with other everyday matters. Child B is no busier than A and lives just as close, but rarely lifts a finger to help. You don’t know if A resents B, but you wouldn’t be surprised if he does. Is an equal division of your assets between the two really fair, you wonder? How will this play out between the two if you reward A for his efforts by giving him more?
What are your alternatives? When they were little, all you had to do was split the cookie equally, and problem solved. It’s not that easy now.
How to distribute assets to children with different needs and histories while trying to be even-handed can be a vexing problem. Some parents, unable to find a “perfect” solution, will continuously delay making a plan or never create one, letting the State of Florida’s intestacy laws determine who gets what. That will result in each child getting an equal share – but doesn’t solve the potential problem of one child feeling resentful in relation to siblings.
If you decide not to split everything equally, it is usually a good idea to tell your children about the decision in advance and explain the reasoning behind your decision, so they are not blindsided later on. You should also make brief mention of your reasons in your estate plan. This can go a long way towards fostering a good relationship among your children after your passing – and could potentially even prevent a lawsuit against your estate from an angry child who feels “That’s not fair!”