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Your Finance: How to disinherit someone

If a parent disinherits you, it is well

If a parent disinherits you, it is well within their legal rights. Credit: iStock

Disinheriting someone is not easy.

"It happens more frequently than people think," says Ron Washburn, professor of legal studies at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.

Disinheriting someone can be a way to haunt a family member from beyond the grave, but there may be pragmatic reasons involved. So if you plan to leave someone out of a will, here is a blueprint for doing it.

Spouses and minor children: Just as you cannot tell a divorce judge that you refuse to split assets or pay alimony, you cannot leave your surviving spouse's house and all of the money to a child or some other family member.

Using language to disavow and disinherit your spouse will not help. Your spouse can waive the will and receive whatever he or she is entitled to under state law. Minor children are also protected by the courts.

Adult children: As cruel as it sounds to disinherit a child, people have their reasons. Sometimes there is no relationship.

Other parents might feel the adult is well-off and does not need an inheritance. Still, a person's circumstances can change, so experts advise caution. "People can get sick or have financial setbacks," says Steve Weisman, an estate-planning attorney in Amherst, Mass.

Those planning on disinheriting an adult child should be gentle with the wording, experts advise.

It could be tempting to disinherit a child by simply not mentioning his or her name. That, too, would be a mistake, says Weisman. A judge might think the omission of someone from a will was a mistake.

Parents: You do not legally have to leave parents anything, under the assumption that you die first. But if you die without a spouse or children, your estate will go to your closest relatives, who are your parents. So if you want to disinherit a parent, you need to write it into the will and designate a different heir.

Extended relatives: There is also no legal obligation to leave assets to siblings, aunts and uncles, or cousins. But if you die without a spouse, children or parents, your next-closest relatives would inherit your estate.

Marina Modlin, an estate-planning lawyer in Campbell, Calif., suggests that if your estate is large enough to be worth fighting over, you should leave token amounts to family members -- whether estranged siblings or a distant niece.

"A small gift to a disinherited heir may deter them from contesting the will, especially once they understand the cost of contesting it, and the likelihood of prevailing," says Modlin.

Weisman also says a will should contain language saying that the deceased has provided for everyone he or she wishes to in the will and that if anyone is left out, it is intentional, not inadvertent.

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