Unequal Inheritances: Tips from Experts

In last week’s post, I shared a few samples of the high-octane reaction to the topic of sibling strife over unequal inheritances. I brought home the point that such warfare is not exclusive to the mega-rich. Last week’s real-life stories came from families of all levels of wealth.

In today’s post, I want to offer tips I received from other advisors. Like me, they’re in the trenches learning the “do’s” and “don’ts” from seeing inheritances in action, the ones that worked and the that went awry.

From a life insurance advisor:
I wish families could see how dangerous it is to family harmony to try and split things like businesses and land among three and four kids. Obviously, I am biased to the insurance industry as a solution but the creation of cash at death for the purpose of estate division can be a huge key to maintaining the relationships in the family. If people truly realized its power, they would be actively pursuing getting as much life insurance coverage as they can.

From a family counselor/life coach:
Having a third-party mentoring the children to prepare them for what is in their future is a great remedy and it reduces the risk of relational issues. It doesn’t eliminate the risk, but it does reduce it.

From a trust officer:
I am in favor of equal division to avoid family conflict. Another problem we see is pot trusts (a trust for multiple beneficiaries where distributions are made to the individual beneficiaries as needed, and there’s no score-keeping)—nobody is happy if one sibling has more needs than others. It is better to have an estate split into equal separate trusts, with the irresponsible sibling having a corporate trustee and the other siblings serving as their own trustee. That way the siblings understand that each of the siblings received the same amount from the parents’ estates and that everyone’s shares are in trust.

From another trust officer:
Seriously consider naming a corporate trustee, if for no other purpose than to administer the estate before the split and each child can take over their own trust at that point. Naming a corporate trustee to serve for the first few years only can often diminish the tendency of the heirs to go after each other. This is especially effective if the corporate trustee is brought into the conversation with the adult children and it is understood that getting through the estate tax filing, any probate, and the initial winding up of the decedent’s dealings is not only not fun, but it can be exhausting and beyond the capability of heirs. And, by the time each heir hires their own lawyer to represent them as fiduciary (in that scenario no one generally believes their interests are truly aligned, someone always believes the other heir is somehow going to try to take advantage of the situation), it quickly becomes obvious that the corporate fiduciary appointed to just get through the administrative phase of the estate is well worth the cost.

Once the estate distributes to the resulting trusts, the heir can become the sole trustee at that point and can do what they want. They can move the assets from the corporate trustee, or if the corporate trustee has done its job well, retain the relationship as a value-added partner.

Experience has shown me how ugly it can get when mom and dad swore in our conference room “our children definitely get along well, they won’t have any problems.” What is always underestimated is the influence of the siblings’ spouses as well.

From a financial advisor:
Thanks for another important article. I’m observing over time that more and more of my work and of the value that my practice offers to families has to do with developing thoughtful ways to increase family communication and understanding of the hopes and wishes of the parents, as well as their kids. Of course, this then interconnects with every other aspect of the family enterprise from business management to family governance to estate planning to portfolio management.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

A final tip from me: When parents are debating leaving an unequal inheritance to their kids, I often advise them to consider making unequal distributions to the kids while the parents are alive, without keeping score. However, when it comes to the Will, leave the estate in equal shares. A Will is a permanent document, and having a reminder of inequality out there forever can continue to sting. If kids aren’t equally capable of managing the assets, leave the assets in equal trusts for each child, and carefully select the appropriate trustee to manage each of the trusts. That way, ownership is equal, even if management is not.

There is no “right” or “wrong” answer; no “one size fits all.” The key is to engage in a thoughtful process, seeking guidance from estate planning advisors who bring experience, wisdom, objectivity, “head,” and “heart” to the table. Every family wrestles with its own dynamics. Address the issues; don’t sweep them under the rug. I urge you to consult with experts who are here to help your family build a lasting and meaningful legacy.

Marvin E. Blum

Tribute to sisterhood: the first post-pandemic reunion of Marvin Blum’s wife Laurie and her three sisters. Even during the separation, the four sisters stayed closely connected on Zoom and by phone, fulfilling their parents’ mission for the family to always remain close. (Left to right: David and Linda Usdan, Peggy and William Adler, Laurie and Marvin Blum, and Diane and Barry Wilen.)