We have a common saying with our kids, “Fair doesn’t mean equal.”
Many of us want equality to be synonymous with fairness — maybe because it seems easier to make things equal than to navigate the complexity of fairness. But think about raising kids. Did you make sure everything was equal?
I doubt you kept track of each dollar spent to make sure it was the same for each child. One child may need braces, while the other has straight teeth. One may need money for music and sports, while the other doesn’t have an interest in those types of things. One child could have health issues and another doesn’t. One could need help with college, while another gets a scholarship. We provide our kids with what is appropriate and what we think they need, regardless of whether it is equal.
And the same should be true of your estate plan. Sometimes, it is okay to treat your children “unequally” because this really may be the fairest approach.
Here are six instances in which you might not want to treat your kids equally when it comes to your plan:
- Greater financial need. One of your kids may need more help financially. Kids are not equal in terms of their financial success or ability to succeed in a career. One of them may simply need more than others because of their financial situation.
- Health needs. A child (or even a grandchild) may have health needs that result in increased costs. Health issues can also limit one’s work options or earning potential, therefore making their need for financial assistance greater.
- One may not need it. For instance, if a disabled child already has their basic needs taken care of through government benefits and healthcare, then it could make things harder for that child to receive money from your estate. If you are confident that siblings will help provide for any extras this person may have in the future, you may be able to disinherit that child without affecting their quality of life.
- Some are better stewards. If one child has consistently made bad financial choices, and you have repeatedly bailed them out, it might make sense to leave them less because you are not confident they would use it well. Or, if you do decide to leave them a similar amount, you may want to take steps to protect their inheritance with specific rules, and someone to help manage it for them. (But not a sibling!)
- Early inheritance. Quite often adult children have a significant financial need and parents give them substantial help. After this happens, it might be good to consider adjusting the amount that child would receive in an inheritance. When this situation occurs, without adjusting the amount left in the estate, the child who didn’t need help often feels they are being punished for never needing help.
- Family farm or business. One child may rely on the family farm or business for their livelihood. If one child has spent a lifetime helping you grow your farm or business, it may be best to leave them more of the total estate so their livelihood is not negatively affected.
Some people still can’t get over the “unfairness” of leaving “unequal” amounts to their children. If you decide to leave equal amounts to each child, we encourage you to consider leaving specially tailored rules for each child, so the inheritance can be handled more fairly.
Protecting Our Kids From Threats
Another important part of an effective estate plan is helping protect our kids from threats. Whether it’s their own wild spending, a future divorce, a lawsuit or financial problems, an effective plan can help anticipate and mitigate these types of challenges. Some kids are more exposed to threats than others. Some kids are better able to handle money than others. The rules you create for your plan need to reflect that. As a parent you should feel free to handle things how you think best, without being tied by guilt into making everything exactly equal.
Involve Your Kids in the Planning Process
We often encourage our clients to involve their family in the planning process. This is especially important when considering leaving “unequal” inheritances. Effective communication with your family about why you have decided to do things the way you have can eliminate a legacy of misunderstanding, misinterpretation of your actions, and pain that children experience when parents don’t communicate about the plan ahead of time.
We have seen many adult children upset by their interpretation of their parents’ plan when the parents leave behind no explanation for their rationale, or fail to discuss ahead of time why they’ve chosen to do what they have. Estate plans can seem like a final accounting of a parent’s love. Because of this, it is really important to do the hard work of communicating with your family, either ahead of time or through your plan.
As with many estate planning matters, this is a complicated one with best solutions varying from family to family. We can’t possibly cover all the nuances in one blog post. Our process walks families through difficult decisions like whether to leave equal amounts to your children in your plan. You have the knowledge about your unique family. We are the experienced guide that helps create an effective plan based on that knowledge. If we can be of assistance to your family, please give us a call at 217-726-9200. If you’d like to learn more about creating an effective estate plan, we encourage you to attend our next introductory workshop, Wills & Trusts: How to Get Started. It’s a great first step towards peace of mind and protecting those you love.