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Last wills and questions: disinheriting a relative

Do you squirm when you think about who will inherit your assets? The grandson who should be studying but is dealing drugs instead? The daughter, a writer, who just published an all-secrets-revealed book about your family? Or, if you don’t have children of your own, what about the brother who squandered your parents’ bequest in a heartbeat? Do these individuals really deserve a share of what you leave behind? Taking it a step further: Can you bar them from inheriting?

The good news is yes, in most states you can disinherit almost anyone except for the person whom you are married to. In California, your spouse is entitled to receive half of the communally owned property after your death — unless, of course, he or she consented to being excluded from the inheritance in a pre- or postnuptial agreement. With the rest of your assets you are free to do as you wish, but you will need a last will and testament. To exclude a family member from your inheritance you will have to specifically name the person in question and state that you wish to exclude him or her. The wording is crucial here, but an attorney can help you. If you die intestate, i.e. without a will, the California Probate Code will apply, and whatever is left after your spouse has received her or his share will go to your closest living blood relatives be they your children, parents, siblings or a second cousin once removed.

The bad news in all this? Disinheriting a relative is possible but it often comes with serious consequences. The person whom you have decided to snub is bound to be offended. And those who do inherit might feel awkward because they do not believe that they are more deserving than the relative who went empty-handed. In more than 25 years as an attorney I have seen a couple of cases where families broke apart over last wills. In that sense, the questions to ask might also be: Can I fix the relationship with my writer-daughter? Will my grandson maybe still change his ways? If things go well a whole different realm of solutions becomes apparent. It ranges from bequeathing a relatively minor token gift to the black sheep in the family, to starting a dialog with everyone involved. An intact family can also be an asset.

by Kevin J. Moore