Jenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea
Cautionary Tales - Disinheriting People - Episode 75
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle! Today’s episode of Legal Tea is a cautionary tale, where we talk about real-life cases with real-life clients with real facts – they’re things me or my office have worked on. For today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about … drumroll please … disinheriting people. You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I meet and help a lot of people that want to disinherit someone – most of the time it’s a kiddo. Though, it, of course, is sometimes others like siblings, parents, or other family members. But yeah, like I said, it’s usually a child – and often, the child is estranged, problematic, or both.
And I get it – talking about the “elephant in the room” stuff is not fun, especially when sharing it with someone like a lawyer. It’s not fun, but it’s very important. So, if someone shares with me that they have someone in their life that is estranged or problematic (however problematic is defined for them), then we’re frequently talking about “how” to disinherit someone. So, for this “cautionary tales” episode, let’s talk about disinheriting people – and what people have done to disinherit someone through an estate plan. The theme you should take away from both these stories is that the client discussed (with the estate attorney – which in a couple of the stories was my office!) HOW to ensure the person they were disinheriting … didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Starting with Story #1 – let’s call the client Margaret. Margaret had two children – namely, two daughters. When Margaret did her estate plan originally, she had included both daughters – 50/50, equal beneficiaries. Well, years passed and Margaret had experienced some things with ONE daughter in particular that she just couldn’t get over. Like, the daughter had repeatedly asked her to “borrow” money (and of course, never paid her back). The daughter’s spouse and Margaret didn’t get along. Margaret, ultimately, just got fed up and she came to the hard decision to disinherit that daughter. So, she comes into our office to talk about “how” to accomplish this. Ultimately, we did a few things:
1. We modified her estate plan documents to remove the daughter AND ensured that she modify any/all beneficiary designations as she saw fit (aka, to remove the daughter she was wanting to disinherit).
2. We put a “disinheritance clause” in her Trust. I always warn clients that the language is a little strong, but it needs to be strong to protect what she’s trying to accomplish. So, we included a “Hey, we didn’t forget about you, daughter; you’re actually legally disinherited” clause.
3. We had Margaret write a handwritten note explaining her decision. She sealed the letter in an envelope and we put it in our physical file until Margaret passed away. We had no idea what it said, but what Margaret asked us to do was to give it to her daughter when she (Margaret) passed away.
Fast forward a handful of years, Margaret passes away. We meet with the daughter that was NOT disinherited, who Margaret had made as her Executor and Trustee in her estate plan. She was nervous, I tell you. She was so terrified what her sister would do, say, think, etc. Though, if there’s a silver lining, she was not close to her sister and really had no relationship. In the meeting, we worked out next steps, how to notify her sister, what would happen if her sister reared an ugly head, etc. One of the things we discussed was that I’d have my office call her sister to pick up the letter from her mother.
That time came … the disinherited daughter comes to my office, we sit her in a conference room, hand her the envelope, and I KID YOU NOT, the daughter looks at us dead in the eyes, rips the letter in half, and walks out the door. It’s hand down one of the most unbelievable things I’ve seen go down. It was so … emotionless. Well, to no one’s surprise, the disinherited daughter calls a lawyer. We talk to the lawyer, explain that Margaret had disinherited their client, and oh PS … don’t even go here because Margaret was, without a doubt, of sound mind when she did everything. We never heard from that lawyer or the sister again. It worked … beautifully.
Let’s discuss another story … Story #2!
Another family, of course, this time it was a gentleman and let’s call him … Jim. So, Jim, too, had an estate plan and he had several kiddos. I think like 6 or 7. Anyway, well I got involved with Jim and family after Jim had been diagnosed with advanced dementia. Therefore, it’s probably crazy to think about, but I actually never worked with Jim on Jim’s stuff; I worked with Jim’s Power of Attorney, who was his son and daughter. Jim had one child that he was super estranged from … and I’m not sure if my memory is failing me or maybe I was never told why (it doesn’t really matter), Jim had disinherited this one child in his estate plan. He had expressly disinherited the kiddo – like, called the child out and said, “Hey I didn’t forget about you. You get nothing!”
Sadly, Jim passed away eventually. Again, I was working with the son and daughter, who were now the Executors and Trustees of their Dad’s plan. Like my last story, we brought them in to figure out next steps. Of course, we talked a little about the child that was disinherited, but not too much because they were confident that “their sibling knew he was disinherited … and he probably wouldn’t cause a stink.” Well, some time passes … maybe like a few weeks or a month. My office gets a call from another lawyer, who I happen to know well, and that lawyer was calling in regards to “Jim’s Estate.” I was thinking my team wrote something down wrong and maybe the lawyer was calling about something else. So, I give the lawyer a call and say, “Hey Matt – How can I help you?” He said, “Hey Jenny – Well I have a prospective client, who said that his Dad passed away and he hasn’t been told anything about his Estate.” If you’re thinking, “Oh no, it’s the disinherited kid!" … You would be right!
Matt, the lawyer, thankfully is a solid, good guy and lawyer and basically was asking (without coming out and asking) if the case was worth taking. I very quickly said, “Matt, I hate to burst your bubble, but Jim had an estate plan and the guy who called you is very expressly disinherited in the document.” Matt replied, “Okay – do you want me to call this guy back and tell him or you?” I was like, “Well I have absolutely no reason to talk to him – so you can!” He laughed and said, “You know, I’ve had pretty bad day, so I don’t mind being the bearer of bad news!” I never heard from Matt (on that case) or the disinherited child again. Thank goodness!
Finally, for another story, Story #3
This case is a little different than the last two I’ve shared. This one, the person disinheriting the child is very much still alive and heck, doing wonderful. So, I’m sure you’re like, “What in the heck are you talking about this person then?” Well, they’ve done something that I thought would be a helpful little nugget to share on here. So, she, let’s call her Kathy, has had a very on-again, off-again relationship with one of her children – namely, her daughter. And as they go on-again, off-again, we usually hear from Kathy to make changes to her estate plan – ha! So, when they’re on, the daughter is “in” the plan; when they’re off, the daughter is “out” of the plan. Though, this last time seems to be the classic “straw that broke the camel’s back.” I’m not sure if we’ll see Kathy put the daughter back in, given what the daughter did.
So, Kathy comes in to discuss removing her daughter as a beneficiary – and in that conversation, Kathy expressed genuine concern about her daughter trying to claim that she was not in the “right” frame of mind to make these type of legal changes. After all, Kathy was in her early 80s and as we age, it’s more ripe for someone to make a claim that … we were of unsound mind, under duress, or whatever … and that whatever they did to their estate plan should NOT govern since they were NOT of “sound mind.” Kathy was super concerned about that. We knew she was totally fine; she knew she was totally fine; but her concern was legitimate. I often tell people that “anyone can sue anyone at anytime for anything” so yes, if her daughter wanted o cause a stink, sure! She could TRY!
We bounced some ideas back-and-forth and ultimately came to the conclusion that we’d have Kathy visit her Doctor and have the Doctor confirm in writing that she is not suffering any type of cognitive impairment. That way, IF he daughter tried to claim that Kathy was off her rocker, we’d have the Doctor saying, ‘Oh no she wasn’t!” I think that idea is brilliant – especially as we age and may make changes to our estate plan. If you (or a loved one) have a similar concern, feel free to snag this idea!
So yeah, these three stories are all very real – all very real-life examples of disinheriting people. As I said at the beginning, the beautiful thing in all three stories is that the client had a solid estate plan to “protect” their wishes. Can you imagine the saga that would have occurred if these people just stayed silent in their estate plan? Or gave them a $1? Which speaking of that, I should just nip in the rear right now – when you give someone a dollar, you are making them a legal beneficiary of the Estate meaning beneficiaries are entitled to think that NON-beneficiaries are NOT entitled to. Like an Accounting – do you really want someone you’re trying to disinherit get an Accounting of what’s come in/out of the Estate? NO! So let me be loud and clear – leaving someone a $1 in your Will or Trust is just a silly thing to do. Don’t do it. Talk to an estate planning attorney to help guide you on how to appropriately protect your wishes. Trust me on that one.
Alrighty … let’s wrap this episode up and shift to a sneak peak of next week. We are back to the current events/current trends topic – where we talk about something I’ve seen or run across, maybe on the news or social media, that I think would be interesting on here. During next week’s episode, we are going to be talking about the well-known story about Gabby Petito and her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. They’re the couple that were traveling the country together; Gabby went missing, was ultimately found dead, and then after a “manhunt” for Brian, he was found dead. Well, I caught some headlines about some estate-stuff going on with this case, so let’s talk about it. Until next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners, take care and be well!