Fair doesn't always mean equal in estate planning
Carissa Giebel 8:33 p.m. CDT April 27, 2015
When planning an estate, most often parents distribute their assets equally among their children. If it's their goal to be fair to each child, it does not necessarily mean leaving your assets equally to each child. Sometimes special circumstances need to be taken into consideration.
If parents have done lifetime gifting to one child, but not another, they may or may not want that taken into consideration in their estate planning. Some parents want the lifetime gift to be extra if child needed the help, as compared to the other more financially independent children. If so, nothing needs to be reflected differently in their estate plan, and the assets can be inherited equally by their children.
Those parents that want to be completely equal all around, but be able and willing to help out those that need it now, should do some additional planning. If their estate plan leaves all assets to the children equally, they may want the child they helped to sign a promissory note, promising to pay back the amount borrowed. This way, if the debt isn't paid back before the parents die, it likely will be payable to the parent's estate and come out of that child's share. This way, the estate plan does not need to be amended each time the parents lend money to a child or a child makes payments back to the parents. Instead, a record tracking the payments made, if any, should be sufficient. Alternatively, the parents can include provisions in their estate plan to make up for the difference. Another option would be for the parents to do matching lifetime gifts to the other children.
If a child chooses to assist in caring for an aging parent, possibly moving in with or allowing the parent to move in with them, the parent may choose to compensate the child by leaving him or her a larger inheritance.
Sometimes parents want to provide a larger share to the child with a lower income and/or a larger family to support, especially if the other children are more financially established. In their estate plan, they provide for a larger share to go to the children, or even grandchildren, that need it the most.
If there is a family business or farm that a child is involved in, quite often that child is not compensated for the amount of time and work contributed, and to make up for it, parents leave them a larger inheritance, usually consisting of the business. Even if the child is fairly compensated for their time, the parents may want the whole business to go to the child involved, rather than making all the children equal owners. Other assets, such as life insurance and investment accounts, are then given to the other children to make the distributions equal.
Even if the other assets may not be worth enough to make the distributions equal, the parents may still want the child involved to receive the whole business. Yet other parents choose to leave everything equally to all children, even if that means the child in the business has to buy the others out.
Parents with a special needs child may choose to leave a larger share to the child in a special needs trust, because that child will need it more than the others. Or perhaps the special needs child could not benefit much from an inheritance, and the parents choose to leave that child less than the others.
As you can see, there are many options to incorporate into your estate plan. Each family is unique, with different dynamics. The failure to plan usually leaves the family with unintended consequences, which is why one of the greatest gifts to leave your family is a written plan incorporating your wishes.