Unequal bequests can wreak havoc on a family when they read the will. Children typically expect that assets will get divided evenly. Three children all expect the same amount of money, for example, or they expect to share ownership of real estate.
However, parents sometimes opt to leave unequal bequests, which can lead to some serious disputes. Children feel insulted. They feel like their parents didn't love them as much as their siblings. They feel like the estate plan rips them off. They take all these frustrations to court.
So why do parents do it? Below are four potential reasons that they leave unequal amounts to their kids:
1. Lack of contact
Parents may lose touch with one child over time, while keeping in touch with others. This level of contact can make a difference. They may be willing to leave more to the children they feel closer to, while cutting the estranged child out to some degree -- or removing them from the will completely. This is especially an issue if some children ignored the relationship while others actively helped care for their elderly parents in old age.
2. Favoring biological children
With blended families and stepchildren, the biological children may get favor from their parents. This may mean that the way assets get passed down depends on which parent passes away first. Either way, the stepchildren of the remaining parent could find themselves getting less than their brothers and sisters.
3. Favoring one marriage over another
Another potential issue is when parents get remarried and then have biological children with the new partner. Now they have children from an older marriage that failed or ended, and they have children from a current -- or at least more recent -- marriage. They could favor one set of children, depending on the way that the marriages played out, even though the children have nothing to do with that directly.
4. Providing for those who need it
One of the most common reasons for unequal bequests is when the parents feel that one child needs money more than the other. A child with massive amounts of debt and a low-paying job may end up getting more than a child with no debt and a good career.
The problem is that the child who gets less may feel like it's a punishment for a successful life, rather than a reward. Regardless of the clear need, this can lead to estate disputes.
These disputes can be long, complex and emotionally charged. It is critical that those working to resolve them know all of the legal options they have and what steps to take moving forward.