How to Disinherit Heirs and What to Do If Disinherited

People are disinherited from estates for a variety of reasons, but there are some key mistakes to avoid.
Lee Huffman
By Lee Huffman 
Published
Edited by Tina Orem

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A person is disinherited when a parent, friend or other benefactor removes them as a beneficiary in a will or trust, which prevents them from inheriting assets from an estate. A person may disinherit someone due to divorce, estrangement, other beneficiaries’ needs or previous gifts.

Disinheriting someone from your estate can cause emotional damage, arguments among family members and awkward conversations. Some people are disinherited because of a simple oversight in estate planning; others are intentionally shut out.

How to disinherit someone

Follow these steps if you’d like to prevent someone from inheriting some or all of your assets when you die.

  1. Determine who to disinherit. Figure out who you want to prevent from receiving your assets.

  2. Create or update your estate plan. Disinheriting someone typically requires having a written will or trust. If you don’t have a will or trust (that is, you die “intestate”), your estate will likely go through the probate process, and a probate court judge will distribute your assets according to state laws

    Cornell University Legal Information Institute. Intestate. Accessed Nov 16, 2023.
    .

  3. Formalize your decision in writing. This removes any possibility that the person you disinherit can contest your will and argue that you simply forgot to name them in your estate plan.

  4. Communicate your plans. Although you are not required to do this, communicating your wishes and reasoning before you die can minimize fighting and hurt feelings after you die.

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Common mistakes when disinheriting someone

Most people focus on who to include in their estate plans. For those who want to exclude someone, avoiding these common mistakes can minimize fighting among your heirs and the legal costs of disputes.

  • Ambiguous language. Using straightforward language and instructions reduces the chance that someone may misunderstand your intentions.

  • Not addressing future children. You or your beneficiaries may have additional children after you create your estate plan. Having a clause in your will or trust about future children and contingent beneficiaries avoids disinheriting anyone unintentionally.

  • Leaving a $1 inheritance. Some people think that leaving someone $1 is better than disinheriting them; however, it may not avoid hurt feelings. 

  • Forgetting to add a “no contest” clause. Adding this clause to a will automatically disinherits any beneficiary who attempts to contest your will

    Cornell University Legal Information Institute. No-contest clause. Accessed Nov 16, 2023.
    .

  • Failing to update the plan. Review your estate plan on a regular basis and update it to reflect major changes in your life, such as adding or disposing of assets, marriage or divorce, birth or adoption, or the death of an heir.

Why to disinherit someone

You don’t have to leave your money to all your heirs equally. You can distribute your assets any way you wish, including disinheriting someone from your estate. Here are a few common reasons people are disinherited.

  • Divorce. After a divorce, people typically update their retirement or insurance accounts and estate plans to remove their ex-spouse as a beneficiary.

  • Estrangement. When a friend or family member stops communicating, some people decide not to give them any assets from their estate.

  • Health reasons. Some people disinherit certain heirs in order to provide additional financial assistance to other heirs needing more help. For example, they may want to pay for major medical expenses or special care for someone else.

  • Lack of need. Some parents may leave extra assets to children with less money, or they may donate their assets to charity if they believe their heirs do not need the money.

  • It’s already gone. Some people give away their assets while they’re still alive. Accordingly, depending on how those gifts are structured, you may disinherit someone because you’ve already given them their share of your estate.

Do disinherited people have any rights?

Although children, other family members and close friends may feel they “deserve” a piece of your estate when you die, you can leave your assets to anyone you’d like.

Children are often entitled to receive a copy of a deceased parent’s will, trust or other estate planning documents. This allows them to verify the distribution of assets, signatures and other details

American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. A Child’s Right to Information When a Parent Dies. Accessed Nov 16, 2023.
.

If someone feels wrongly disinherited, they can speak with an estate planning attorney or may try to contest the will in probate court. Hiring an estate attorney can be expensive and does not guarantee a successful outcome. In general, a person who contests a will must be able to prove in probate court that fraud, diminished mental capacity, contractual obligations or other problems existed with the estate plan that would invalidate the will.

Frequently asked questions

To disinherit a child, some parents avoid mentioning the child's name in their estate planning documents. This can cause confusion and lead to lengthy and costly legal disputes. The best approach is to specifically state that the child is being excluded from the parent's estate in the will or trust. Communicating the parent's wishes and rationale for estate planning decisions can avoid surprises and animosity among heirs when assets are distributed.

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