Can you legally prevent someone from receiving inheritance if they lived off their parents?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My wife's father recently passed away and left an estate of approximately 2 million to be divided equally among 4 children. Two of the children have lived independently from approximately 20 years of age. The remaining 2 children have never left the parents home with one on SSI because of mental health impairment. The other remaining child has lived 46 years with the parents and has worked sparingly. She has never had to buy a roll of toilet paper, insure a car, buy food, utilities, etc... Is it fair that she will inherit equally, and is there a legal cause of action that can reduce her inheritance because of over 40 years of living on her parents dime?

Expert Answer

Judy and Fred co-mediate family property and financial conflicts, and each work individually as mediators as well. Judy Barber, a mediator and family business consultant, assists clients in resolving overlapping family and money conflicts so they are better able to make sound estate planning decisions. Frederick Hertz is an attorney and mediator who specializes in resolving co-ownership matters involving families, siblings, spouses, cohabitants and domestic partners.

It probably doesn't feel fair that your wife's sister, shares equally in the inheritance. She lacked a work ethic and relied on the parents to provide necessities. Unfortunately for you, there is no legal cause of action to take away her right to inherit. Your father-in-law has the right to dispose of his assets however he wishes to, and there is no requirement that it be "fair" "“ it just has to be lawful, which this bequest is.

Your feelings about the situation are not uncommon. Family members are often angry when an "undeserving" sibling gets the same as everyone else. But there is another perspective.

Your wife's sister was not the decision maker. It was her father and her mother who decided, for what ever reasons, to allow her to live with them for all those years. Her parents shopped for her and paid her car insurance. Apparently she was not asked to pay rent, nor pressured to work and contribute to the household expenses.

With the death of a parent and the natural grieving process, judging the actions of the deceased is often unthinkable. It may feel disloyal for you and your wife to criticize her father's estate planning decisions. But in terms of the responsibility for the sister's life, your parents made it easy for her to be dependent rather than an autonomous adult. A troubling scenario is that she now may not have the life skills to manage her life and her finances on her own.

If at the time of distribution you and your wife still feel resentful of the equal share her sister receives, keep in mind that her parents took the first step of keeping their daughter in their home without insisting that she move out and grow up.