Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries

Every family has one – or maybe more – black sheep. They’re people who march to their own drum, and handing them an inheritance could be problematic. Here are some tips for managing them in your estate plan.

One black sheep in a flock of white sheep
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Every family faces a unique set of circumstances when it comes to wealth, financial planning and thinking about the future. But no matter the situation – whether you have many children or none, whether they’re still in school or grown with a family of their own, whether you’re married or divorced – it is essential to consider your individual beneficiaries’ circumstances when it comes to estate planning.

Perhaps you are worried about substance abuse, a son- or daughter-in-law who is irresponsible with money or has mental illness, or siblings with different levels of motivation; perhaps you simply want to incentivize certain behaviors in the future. All of these situations can be addressed thoughtfully and effectively in your estate planning documents.

There are several myths about how estates must be distributed that can lead to lots of worry about what will happen to a “wild child” in the future and stress about family dynamics.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

Myth #1: You must divide your estate evenly among beneficiaries

Disinheriting a beneficiary is more common than you think. Sometimes, disinheriting happens for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with disapproval of a potential beneficiary’s lifestyle choices. For example, if you have a family member who is disabled, you may opt to leave more assets to that beneficiary to ensure their medical or caregiving needs will be met in the future, thereby leaving less to your other beneficiaries. In other cases, ranging from wanting to protect assets from a spendthrift beneficiary to equalizing distributions when major financial gifts have been made during life, you may choose to make disproportionate allocations. If you have helped one child with a down payment on a home but your other child has not settled down enough to be ready to handle homeownership, you may want to leave the non-homeowner child additional funds from your estate to make up for helping the first child buy a home.

No matter the reason for disinheriting completely or making unequal distributions, it is a best practice to explain either in your estate documents or in a separate letter the rationale behind your decision so as to avoid the possibility of a claim against the estate or even just hard feelings among family members.

Myth #2: Once you have disinherited the wayward beneficiary, you cannot change your mind

In actuality, we recommend that you re-evaluate your estate-planning choices periodically. Situations change, hopefully in a positive direction, and you can revise your estate documents to provide incentives for your beneficiary to continue making progress.

Myth #3: You cannot control things from the grave

Of course, you won’t have direct control after you pass. You can, however, make specific provisions in your trust to incentivize desired behaviors. Examples include establishing trusts for beneficiaries that call for the trustee to make a certain dollar amount or allow distributions of percentages of the assets of the trust upon achieving certain life milestones. You can provide a specific distribution contingent upon the graduation from college or completion of a technical education program, the purchase of a car if the beneficiary holds a job for a year or an allowance to cover housing and food expenses if a drug rehabilitation program is completed. You can also stagger the distribution schedule – say, 25% distribution at age 25, 35% at age 30 and the balance at age 35 – so that a beneficiary cannot burn through their inheritance all at once.

It is possible to treat the share of inheritance for one beneficiary differently than others. You can allow one (financially responsible) child to access their share of the estate in one lump sum, establish a trust for the second child who is still finding their path in life with the ability to access the assets in a staggered fashion, and put the third child’s share in an incentive trust to encourage more responsible behavior in the future.

Myth #4 (and how to bust it): Trusts are complicated and a pain to administer

Certain types of trusts allow you to name someone to help your beneficiary manage their inheritance. While you may not want to burden a family member or friend with the responsibilities of being a trustee, particularly if you have a serious or long-term situation with the beneficiary, such as mental illness or substance abuse, you can name a professional trustee to assume the administrative responsibilities of a trust. While there are costs associated with hiring a corporate trustee, they are a small price to pay for the peace of mind in knowing that your loved ones, even the black sheep of the family, are receiving their inheritance under the best possible circumstances.

Even under the best of circumstances, estate planning can be difficult. No one wants to think about their passing, and it’s natural to worry about your family’s well-being, cohesion and quality of life. But rather than avoid the subject or struggle to grapple with it on your own, discuss the options available with your financial adviser and estate planning attorney. They can help you determine the most effective and thoughtful way to structure your estate to accomplish your legacy goals.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Kara Duckworth, CFP®, CDFA®
Managing Director of Client Experience, Mercer Advisors

Kara Duckworth is the Managing Director of Client Experience at Mercer Advisors and also leads the company’s InvestHERs program, focused on providing financial planning to serve the specific needs of women. She is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®. She is a frequent public speaker on financial planning topics and has been quoted in numerous industry publications.