Some parents leave 'black sheep' out of family inheritance


SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Most parents try to give their children even-handed love -- in life and after death.

But when a black sheep gambols among the flock, increasing numbers are questioning the wisdom of share-and-share-alike.

In a true last testament to fractured family ties, these parents are bequeathing legacies only to the favored offspring.

Alcoholics, drug addicts and convicts are written off or constrained by trusts that dole out funds for food and shelter.

Kids who left and never call home are losing their place in the inheritance line.

"We're seeing a lot more people writing their kids out of their wills or not splitting the pie equally," said Steve Dragna, estate-planning attorney with Jacoby & Meyers in Cerritos, Calif. "I may not agree with them personally, but they are determined.

Sometimes it's spiteful, yes. But most of the time the adult kids are substance abusers or they just move away and never stay in touch."

Disowning her child was the hardest thing Claudia Eien ever did.

Ms. Eien, a counselor who works with grandparents raising their grandchildren, among others, had tried to rescue a drug and alcohol addicted daughter.

The family had gone through interventions -- using outside counselors to help confront the daughter with her addictions.

They had helped her with treatment, only to watch her fail. And fail again.

Eventually, Ms. Eien barred the door. She took custody of her daughter's child. She made sure there would never be family financial resources for her.

"To me, it was tough love. I wasn't saying, 'I cut you out because I don't love you.' I was saying, 'I love you enough to keep this from you.' "

Ms. Eien was criticized by clergy and friends, but stood firm. After treatment for substance abuse, her daughter reconciled with her mother.

Reconciliation is what most parents long for, attorneys said. Not all achieve it.

Dentist Duayne Christensen disinherited his eldest son, blaming drugs for their lack of communication.

The younger Christensen was in the Orange County, Calif., jail the day his father was killed when his car hit a freeway abutment. The father and son never did communicate.

Parents need to be sure they want disinheritance to be their final message, said attorney Randy Godshall in Newport Beach.

Mr. Godshall counsels parents that fairness means equal division of assets.

"Unless they are going to do some explaining in their lifetime, it's quite possible the child treated unequally will feel quite upset and angry," he said. "I counsel my clients against leaving that kind of legacy."

Some parents feel they have no choice.

Grandparents raising grandchildren, for instance, are anxious to provide for the grandchild. That usually means cutting out the grandchild's parent.

"It's an issue we all face, particularly because we know we probably won't be around long enough to financially provide for all the needs of these grandkids," said Joey Sims, a grandmother and co-founder of Orange County Grandparents as Parents.

Such grandparents worry about how to leave money to their grandchildren without giving it to their own children first, she said. And that can force them to make legal decisions that go against society's grain.

Psychologist Thomas Show of Irvine, Calif., cautions parents that writing off a child for personal reasons is akin to saying the child is psychologically dead.

"To do it impulsively is a vindictive act," he said. "If a parent has gone through a grieving process, it may be necessary. But first the parent has to be able to get over the idea that they are responsible for the outcome of what happens to a child. They have to make sure they can accept the fact that their children are adults, that they are responsible for their own lives."

The old saw that children are a reflection -- or an extension -- of the parent keeps most parents from discussing disinheritances.

Even adult children who learn the news after a parent's death rarely will talk about what happened, lawyers said.

When children are written off, Newport Beach attorney Edward Stone checks annually to see if the parent's mind has changed.

"There is one woman I call every year. She wrote her son out because she says he stole from her. I want to make sure she still wants her will left that way," Mr. Stone said. So far, she still does.

Longevity is reinforcing the mother's decision, Mr. Stone said.

As more parents live longer, they are discovering how their children turn out. A lot of them don't like what they see.

Counselor Eien tells parents that they need to keep trying to communicate with children.

"Everyone owes it to themselves to find out why children respond in different ways," she said. "But if you have tried and they still don't respond, then you need to hold them to account."

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