How Do I Disinherit a Family Member?

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Four Ways to Disinherit Family Members,” says that quite a few families don’t get along. However, when considering estate planning, the problem is that without a valid will leaving money to other individuals, family members are the “default” recipient of your estate. If you decide to leave any property using your will, your next-of-kin must still be given legal notice of your estate being probated (even if they’re being disinherited), and usually they’re only ones who can legitimately contest your will.

If you do have bad family relations and don’t want family members contesting your will, there are several legal tactics you can use.

  1. Leave property outside of your will. You’ll only need to probate property that’s not already effectively left to someone outside of probate. Therefore, when you name a beneficiary or co-owner on your accounts or real estate, that property won’t go through probate. Similarly, life insurance policies and retirement plans ask you to name a beneficiary, and investment and bank accounts usually let you name a “transfer on death” beneficiary. Finally, any property passing by living trusts also avoids probate.
  2. Add a ‘no-contest’ clause to your will. If you decide to disinherit your family or leave them less than they would be entitled to if you had no will, you can use a “no-contest” (aka “in terrorem”) clause. A no-contest clause states that if someone contests your will, they get nothing. However, people mess up by adding a no-contest clause, then they leave no property to the disinherited family member. Because the disowned family member is getting nothing anyway, he has nothing to lose by contesting the document. Thus, the clause serves no purpose. For a no-contest clause to be effective, leave a more-than-nominal bequest and let the potential contestant know that there’s a decent alternative to receiving nothing. Leaving them an amount acts as an incentive to not contest the will.
  3. Documenting the reasons for disinheriting. Use descriptive letters to supplement (and not supplant) your proper legal documents, and create formal, signed memorandums with notarized signatures to support but not replace those documents.
  4. Create other legal documents to disinherit your spouse. Pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements can address what happens, if you get divorced and when you die. You and your spouse may also “waive” estate rights in a separate document that doesn’t even deal with a potential divorce. The only downside with these agreements, is that they require both parties to agree. They also usually require separate legal counsel to make them most effective.

Work with a qualified estate panning attorney when you want to leave someone out of your will.

Reference: Kiplinger (November 13, 2019) “Four Ways to Disinherit Family Members”