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The Ramifications of Disinheriting a Child

Disinheriting a child sounds like a harsh act. The word conjures up images of an angry parent taking out a lifetime of disappointment with a child by denying him or her any inheritance. Yet there are many cases where disinheritance is simply based on the testator’s appraisal of his children’s relative financial positions.

An interesting historical example of disinheritance involved the former king of Great Britain, Edward VIII, who succeeded his father, King George V, in January 1936. The new king was surprised to learn he inherited nothing from the £3 million estate of his father. King George reasoned that since Edward would enjoy the income from properties held in trust for him as king, he would leave his private fortune to his other four children. (This later became an issue when Edward abdicated the throne in favor of his brother.)

While your own estate may not amount to a king’s ransom, it’s not uncommon to intentionally exclude a financially secure child from a will or trust in favor of providing for other children or family members. California law, however, requires clear manifestation of your intent to disinherit a child. If you make a will or trust and subsequently have additional children, California presumes you intended to provide for those children in your estate unless you amend your estate planning documents accordingly. Absent such explicit language, those children will automatically inherit the same share of your estate as if no will or trust existed at all.

Can a Disinherited Child Fight Back in Court?

A disinherited child might attempt to contest your will in probate court. Such challenges cannot be based on the disinheritance itself. Rather, the child would have to prove your will was improperly made or the product of fraud. A disinherited child has limited standing to appear in court based on his or her status as an heir who would receive part (or all) of your estate if you died without a valid will.

Recently a California appeals court panel clarified just how limited a disinherited child’s standing is in probate matters. This case is presented purely for illustrative purposes and should not be construed as a binding statement of law. At issue here was the Estate of Eugenia Ringgold, a California resident who died in 2006. Ringgold previously established a living trust to dispose of her assets. She concurrently signed a pour-over will, a document conveying any remaining assets at her death to the trust. Ringgold expressly excluded her daughter, Dorian Carter, from any inheritance under the will and trust.

After Ringgold’s death, a dispute broke out over who should be appointed successor trustee of the trust, and later who should be appointed executor of the will. A probate judge eventually named a special administrator for the will. At this point, Carter filed her own application to reverse the special administrator’s appointment.

The California Court of Appeals ultimately held Carter lacked standing to even make such a request. Carter never contested the will itself, and since both the will and the trust expressly disinherited her, she had no legal interest in the disposition of her mother’s estate. She might as well have been a stranger as far as California law was concerned.

Whether you’re disinheriting a child for personal or financial reasons, it’s important you work with an experienced San Diego estate planning attorney to ensure your intentions are clearly manifested in your will or trust documents. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today if you have any questions.

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