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Dealing with an unfair inheritance

Key takeaways

  • Before you do anything, it's important to understand why your loved one chose to distribute assets in the manner they did.
  • Beneficiaries who believe they are entitled to more than they received may be best served by staying on good terms with those who received the lion's share of the inheritance.
  • Those who received more than they feel they need or deserve have several options at their disposal, including disclaiming the inheritance or setting up a gifting strategy.

The financial aftermath of losing a loved one, such as a parent or a sibling, can be very fraught, especially when that loved one's estate plan includes a curveball or two. If you've inherited more or less money than you expected, you may have found yourself in the midst of a very awkward and potentially explosive family dilemma.

While many people's first reaction may be to strike an adversarial pose, there may be ways to resolve such a situation amicably—assuming everyone involved is willing to work together. But before that can be achieved, it may be helpful to try to understand your loved one’s reasoning for structuring their estate plan in this manner.

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Why might an inheritance be divided unequally?

There are many reasons why someone might choose to leave different amounts of money to their various inheritors.

Your loved one may have had good intentions. Perhaps they recognized that some of their beneficiaries needed more financial help than others, and believed that by leaving unequal portions they were, in fact, being fairer than if they had divided things equally. In such a scenario, it would be best for them to have clearly communicated this before they passed on, to ensure everyone involved (including executors, trustees and beneficiaries) understood their intentions and, perhaps, engage in a meaningful discussion about the plan. Of course, it may be that your loved one elected to distribute their assets unequally to make a point or as the result of a falling out or estrangement.

That said, it's also possible that an inheritance has been divided up unequally due to an accident or mistake made in the estate planning process. Inconsistencies between wills and beneficiary designations, or a failure to keep documents up to date amid changing family circumstances (such as divorces, marriages, births, and deaths), may end up unintentionally excluding or short-changing certain family members in ways your loved one may have not intended. For the beneficiaries, it may be challenging to determine exactly what the actual intent was, or to come to a consensus on what should happen in order to resolve the resulting inequalities.

Taking the time to understand why the inheritance was distributed the way it was may help you come to terms with how things have played out. But what action you may take depends on what outcome you ultimately desire and what side of the equation you find yourself on.

If you feel your inheritance is unfairly small

If you received a smaller inheritance than you expected or that you feel you deserve, you may be feeling hurt that your loved one did not adequately consider your needs. You may be angry that your siblings or other family members have made out better than you and wondering whether there's anything you can do to make things right.

Of course, there are opportunities for recourse. You could contest the will and take your family members to court in an effort to get what you feel you are entitled to.

But the truth is, if you're looking to get something that you weren't given, your best bet is to remain on good terms with your family in the hopes that you can come to a private agreement that satisfies at least some of your needs. "A will contest or similar challenge can be a protracted and expensive legal proceeding with an uncertain outcome," says Michael Christy, regional vice president on the Advanced Planning team at Fidelity Investments. "A disappointed beneficiary’s (or potential beneficiary) instinct and desire to challenge a will, for example, is understandable but in many cases it is worth approaching others involved to explore a potential resolution before escalating the situation."

Maybe you feel like you've got nothing to lose. Don't be so sure. Taking the matter to court can be expensive, and barring some significant, obvious issue, such as fraud, diminished capacity, or undue influence, it can be very difficult to invalidate your loved one’s wishes and intentions that they laid out in a will or trust. Furthermore, some wills and trusts may contain language that would automatically disinherit anyone who contests its terms, meaning that you could end up forfeiting what little you received in the first place.

"These are often emotionally charged situations that can exacerbate already delicate family dynamics," says Christy, "it is important for the disappointed heir to take time to process both the grief they may be experiencing because of the loss of a loved one and the disappointment of an unexpected inheritance.  Regardless of how the situation is resolved, if possible, it is always preferable to maintain good relationships with the rest of the family."

If you feel your inheritance is unfairly large

If you are the one who received the lion's share of an inheritance and are concerned about how the unequal division of assets may affect your relationships with your loved ones, there are a few options at your disposal.

First, you can explore "disclaiming" your inheritance. By formally refusing some or all of your inheritance in writing, you can remove yourself from the equation. Assets intended for you would then pass to the next beneficiaries identified in the estate-planning document, as if you had predeceased your loved one. You have no control over where the assets go, so it's important to confirm that disclaiming your inheritance would have the intended effect. You should work with an attorney when considering disclaiming your inheritance, because there are several steps that must be followed to properly disclaim, including a requirement that the disclaimer is filed within 9 months of your loved one’s death.

You could also work with an attorney to investigate whether your loved one granted you a power of appointment over your inheritance. "When someone drafts a will or establishes a trust, they can grant a power of appointment to a beneficiary that would allow that beneficiary to override the default instructions that were put in place," says Christy. "If a beneficiary was given this power, they could modify those instructions to appoint or direct the inheritance differently."

If these avenues aren't available to you, you can always directly gift inherited assets to another family member. It's important, however, to understand how these options could affect your taxes and your ability to protect your own wealth in the future. "When you transfer some of your inheritance to someone else, whether it's a family member or not, that's considered a gift that could be subject to both state or federal gift tax," says Christy.

For smaller sums of money, you can make use of your annual gift tax exclusion. Each calendar year, you are entitled to gift a certain amount of money ($18,000 in 2024) to another individual without federal gift tax liability. Assuming you're able to come to an agreement with your family members and they're willing to be patient, you could also use the annual gift tax exclusion to pay out a larger sum of money in installments over a few years.

For larger sums of money, or if you want (or need) to settle things more quickly, you could also utilize your lifetime federal gift tax exemption. In 2024, the lifetime gift tax exemption allows you to gift up to $13.61 million without incurring a federal gift tax liability. Note, however, that each large gift reduces your remaining lifetime federal gift tax exemption, and you will need to file a federal gift tax return (IRS Form 709) to report the gift to the IRS. This only applies to gifts that exceed the annual gift exclusion, so you won't have to tap into your lifetime gift exclusion until you gift more than the annual exclusion amount to an individual.

While this may seem like an expedient option, using your lifetime federal gift tax exemption to make gifts during your lifetime will reduce the amount you are able to utilize at death when passing your estate on to your heirs (in other words, this exemption is used for both federal gift tax and estate-tax purposes). For example, imagine you gifted $118,000 to a sibling in 2024. The amount that exceeds the $18,000 annual gift exclusion ($100,000) would reduce your lifetime exemption from $13.61 million to $13.51 million. If you don't expect to have an estate with a value that exceeds that amount at death, it may be a moot point, but it's always important to be aware of the long-term implications of a short-term remedy. Depending on the state you live in, there might also be state-level gift and estate tax considerations. As such, it is important to consult with a tax advisor or an attorney prior to gifting a large amount.

Think hard about what you want to walk away with

Letting your emotions govern your decision-making could lead you astray and leave you in a worse situation than when you began. Before you react in a way that might be counterproductive, take a step back and really consider what it is you want to achieve and whether there is a constructive way to bring that outcome to fruition. Consider also whether or not what you think you want is truly worth the costs, both emotional and financial, you may incur by pursuing it. Whatever you decide, remember that it's important to consult with a financial professional and perhaps a legal advisor to help ensure it's aligned to your broader wealth goals.

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Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments or its affiliates. Fidelity does not assume any duty to update any of the information.

Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation.

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