I was speaking with a dear friend recently who consulted me about a concern she had regarding “her” inheritance. She explained to me that her grandparents, who were quite wealthy, had always led her to believe that she would receive a substantial bequest. As it turned out, the entire estate had been left first to another relative with the unwritten ‘understanding’ that the remainder of it would be subsequently distributed among the grandchildren. Unfortunately, the manner in which the distribution had been made gave her relative complete power over the estate with no binding obligation to leave anything to my friend or the other grandchildren. The grandchildren were now waiting for ‘their inheritance’ from their senior relative which created an atmosphere of uncomfortable tension among the grandchildren.
As a trust and estates practitioner, my friend asked me what could be done to protect ‘her inheritance’. I had the unfortunate job of explaining to my friend that under these circumstances there was little that could be done because given the way the estate plan had been structured, she had no right to ‘her’ inheritance. Unfortunately, my friend’s attitude is not unusual.
Many people are surprised to learn that, with the exception of a spouse and minor or disabled children, there is generally no ‘right’ to inherit. In California, a person retains the right to dispose of property at death as he or she chooses. Generally, as long as proper formalities are observed and the parent or grandparent has adequate capacity, he or she is free to dispose of his or her assets in any manner—no matter how bizarre the testamentary decision. A recent illustration of such capriciousness was Leona Helmsley’s decision to disinherit her grandchildren and instead leaving millions to her dog Trouble.
Moreover, in the absence of fraud, undue influence or competency issues, there is little chance the court system will remedy your perceived slight. In California, will or trust contests are disfavored proceedings with rigid evidentiary requirements; a relatively low percentage of contests are successful. In fact, a challenge to an estate plan is one of the few areas where the California Legislature has eliminated the right to a jury trial.
Are you ‘expecting’ an inheritance? Without a formal and binding contract, you have no legal right to your expectation. In most instances an inheritance is a gift, not a right, and you should consider adjusting your expectations.