How to Manage Unequal Inheritances in a Will


Attorney, distinguished law professor

For most people with more than one child, leaving an inheritance to the children is simple--divide the estate equally among them. After all, that seems like the fairest way to do it.

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However, more and more parents and children alike are starting to realize that “equal” does not always mean “fair.” In fact, there are many reasons why someone might leave an unequal inheritance to their children.

But despite a parent’s best intentions, unequal inheritances often lead to bitterness, resentment, and even litigation between siblings who think that they were slighted in their parent’s will. For parents just trying to do what is right for their children, this can seem like a “no-win” situation.

What Typically Happens When There’s an Unequal Inheritance Between Siblings or Other Loved Ones?

There are a variety of factors that influence a person to treat children differently when distributing their inheritance. These include:

  • Whether one child provides more care to the parents during life
  • Whether one child has special needs that the other children don’t have
  • Whether any children have their own children to care for
  • Whether any children are part of a blended family (ie, step-children or adopted children)
  • Whether a particular child is not as financially “well-off” as their siblings, who may not need as much financial assistance

According to a commonly-cited 2018 survey by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and the consultant Age Wave, any of these circumstances in a family may cause a parent to consider leaving an unequal inheritance between siblings. 

In fact, in the survey, two-thirds of the respondents said that an adult child who provides care to a parent during life should get more than children who don’t provide care. This is referred to as “caregiver equity.”

Twenty-five percent of the respondents were willing to give more to a child who has their own children to care for than their siblings who have no children. Forty percent of respondents agreed that it is appropriate to leave more to natural, biological children than to step-children or adopted children who will not carry on the family bloodline.

Parents sometimes leave an unequal inheritance to compensate for a child’s predicament in life. For example, if a child suffers from some sort of addiction or has shown themselves to be financially irresponsible, a parent may leave that child a smaller inheritance to squander.

Some parents may provide more to one child simply because the child is worse off financially than their siblings, but a more recent study published in the Journal of Population Economics in 2019 found that in making inheritance decisions, parents are less motivated by a child’s mere economic circumstances.

Whatever the reasons are for leaving an unequal inheritance, you can be sure that whoever gets less than the others is going to be unhappy or even angry about it, especially if they weren’t expecting it. And this can lead to a bitter family squabble between the children that the parent never intended or anticipated.         

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How to Manage Unequal Inheritances in Your Own Will 

If you are considering leaving an unequal inheritance to your children, there are things you can do to alleviate, or even avoid, any tension between them that may result. 

Discuss your plan with your children

Children often view their inheritance as somehow representing your love for them. When a child receives a smaller inheritance than their siblings, they may feel that you don’t love them as much as your other children. 

To avoid these hurt feelings, it is important to discuss your estate plan with your children so that they understand the reasons for your decisions. Perhaps the unequal distribution you have chosen provides the best tax advantages or greater asset protection. Perhaps your children will agree that their special needs sibling requires more financial assistance.

These may be considerations that your children won’t know or appreciate unless you tell them. Once they know that you have good reasons for dividing your property unequally, they may understand that their inheritance is a measure of good estate planning and not a comparison of your love for them.

Manage expectations

Another reason to discuss your estate plan with your children is to manage their expectations about what they will receive. The best way to avoid a child’s disappointment and hurt feelings is to let them know your plan for their inheritance, and the reasons for it, ahead of time. This gives them time to consider your decisions and to discuss them with their siblings.

If they understand that an unequal division is what makes their inheritance fair because of gifts you already provided during life, then their inheritance will meet their expectations and not come as a surprise.

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Take steps to minimize family dissension

If you fear that your children will not understand or accept their unequal inheritance in your will, there are ways to distribute property outside of your will. For example, you might consider creating a trust, which allows you to control the distribution of assets to your children over time rather than receiving one lump sum upon your death.

With a trust, you can provide an equal inheritance to each child but place limitations on how or when a financially irresponsible child might receive it. Also, unlike your will, which becomes a public document that anyone can read when you die, a trust is private. You can convey assets to a child in a trust without your other children knowing what was distributed. 

You also might provide for your children equally in your will but name one or more children as the beneficiaries of a life insurance policy or other payable-on-death asset that is not part of your will. This may be a way to provide to a child who did not receive benefits their siblings received during life, such as college tuition, payment for a wedding, or a down payment on a house.

If you do provide gifts to certain children during life that you intend to be accounted for as part of their inheritance, document your intention when you make the gift. You might include a promissory note or some other writing that memorializes your intent that the gift was an advancement on their inheritance.

You also should make specific reference to those inter-vivos gifts (gifts “during life”) in your will. This way, any unequal distribution of property in your will is explained and accounted for.      

How to Manage Unequal Inheritances in a Loved One’s Will 

Just as an unequal inheritance can create stress for a parent when drafting their will, it more often creates tension among siblings after the parent dies. The resulting family turmoil can last for years. If you and your siblings are the subjects of an unequal inheritance, it is best to resolve that issue quickly.

There are steps you can take to avoid ongoing animosity over an unequal inheritance. Consider the following:   

Be reasonable

It may be easier said than done, but the best thing you can do if a sibling receives a greater inheritance than you is to try to understand the reason for it. Consider what your sibling may have done to deserve a larger share of your parent’s financial pie. 

It’s not unusual at all for a parent to provide more in a will for a child who provided care to them while they were alive, especially at the end of life, when care was most needed. Perhaps a sibling was awarded your parent’s car, not because they were favored but because your sibling drove your parents everywhere they needed to go when they could no longer drive. Maybe your sibling received your parents’ house because they lived there to care for your parents while they were ill. 

It may be that your sibling lives close to your parents and is able to provide the care your parents require, while you live far away. But researchers have found that parents tend to provide more to children who provide even informal services, such as surprise visits or more frequent phone calls, as opposed to those children who do not provide this attention.

Finally, consider your own financial circumstances and those of your siblings. Do you really need the inheritance you were anticipating as much as your sibling, who may have benefitted more? Are you more financially well off than your sibling? Do you have a more stable job? Have you already completed your education while your sibling has not?

Your parents may have reasons for leaving an unequal inheritance. Try to be reasonable to understand their decision and honor their wishes.  

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Contest the will if necessary

It is unrealistic to think that every child has proper motives when it comes to receiving an inheritance in their parent’s’ will. There are times when a sibling may have received a greater share of a parent’s estate as a result of their improper influence on the parent.

If you are the subject of an unequal inheritance and you suspect that this was the case, you have a right to contest the validity of your parent’s will by claiming “undue influence.”

To show “undue influence,” you must demonstrate to the court that your sibling took advantage of your parent by manipulating them to change their real intentions in their will. This can be very difficult to prove because, as has been shown in this article, there are any number of reasons why a parent might have left an unequal inheritance. To support such a claim, it would help to show:

Your parent was vulnerable. A person is more likely to be unduly influenced if they are vulnerable to manipulation, such as if they are elderly, ill, suffering from some degree of mental incapacity, or dependent on someone to provide the care they need.

Your sibling had the opportunity to unduly influence your parent. A person is more easily influenced by someone who has their ear on a regular basis or who provides the care on which the person is dependent. You must be careful, however, because it is easy to suspect a caregiver of undue influence, even when their motives for providing care are entirely proper. (To avoid this suspicion as a caregiver, executing a written agreement with your parent about the value of the services you are providing may be helpful.)

The unequal inheritance was unnatural. Proving undue influence by a sibling is difficult because there is nothing particularly unusual about leaving one child more than another in a will, especially when that child has provided care and attention during life. However, if you can show that an unequal inheritance was truly not your parent’s intention, then you might support your claim.

For example, your parent may have executed other wills in the past that consistently gave an equal inheritance to all of their children. If your parent suddenly and drastically changed their will when your sibling started living with, visiting, or communicating with your parent on a regular basis, this may be evidence that your sibling unduly influenced them to change their will.

You also may contest a will without showing improper behavior by your sibling. Instead, you may show that your parent did not have proper mental capacity at the time they executed their will. This will require medical testimony and also is very difficult to prove.

Although contesting the will is always an option, understand that bringing litigation against your siblings is not likely to alleviate any tension that may have arisen over your parent’s will. In fact, it is likely to drive a deeper wedge between family members.

So, even if you suspect a sibling somehow unduly influenced your parent for a greater inheritance, be sure it is worth it to you to bring litigation to invalidate your parent’s will and possibly damage your family relationships.               

Leaving an Unequal Inheritance Can Be a Delicate Decision 

For most, leaving children their inheritance is a straightforward matter--divide equally. But there are many reasons why leaving an unequal inheritance may be necessary and proper. Whether you are a parent leaving an inheritance or a child receiving it, understand that an equal split is not always what is fair. 

When possible, parents and adult children should discuss the issue of family inheritance so that intentions are made clear and expectations are satisfied when a parent finally passes away. 

Transparency and open discussion is often the best approach. However, if disclosure is only going to result in hurt feelings and misunderstandings, take steps to dispose of property privately, outside your will, such as with a trust or other payable-on-death instrument.

Finally, where improper motive is apparent, such as a sibling’s exercise of undue influence over a parent, do not be afraid to contest the validity of the will. Just be mindful that although litigation may resolve your financial claim, it likely will do damage to ongoing family relationships.

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