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Unequal Distribution to Heirs

I was working on an interesting estate planning case today and I thought I would get people’s opinions on the subject.  At the end of the day, this client wants to leave his inheritance assets in an unequal distribution schedule to his three children wherein one will receive the lion’s share of the 8-digit estate.

I should mention the right of the bat though, that while your opinion means something to me it won’t change the case as the number one priority in estate planning, at least in my humble opinion, is bringing to life the client’s testamentary intent.

Should You Distribute Your Estate Equally to Your Children?

It feels natural to just split everything between your kids, right? It is like using a simple will where you live everything to your surviving spouse and then if he or she doesn’t survive then to your children…it is comforting for some reason.  But what if that isn’t equitable?  Equitable is defined as

impartial or reasonable; fair; just

Two examples having to do with the unequal distribution of assets schedules that are probably more common than one would like to believe:

  • What if you have 2 children and one is the prodigal son?  Does that lost son really deserve half the estate? What if he was gone for 10 years? 20 years? 35 years?
  • The whole concept of stepchildren and inheriting from a surviving non-parent without a Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust.

What if the bequest has to do with a Family Business?

In the case I was working on today, it was three children and only one of the children worked in the family businesses for the past decade or two.  As such, it is/was the parents’ intent to leave him the business to the detriment of his siblings.  So Child 1 will receive the established businesses, and only after those specific bequests are made will the remainder be split into thirds.

Mom and Dad basically said he has stuck around and built those assets into what they are today and thus he deserves to get those assets even if it means that his siblings will get less.

Could you make that same decision? 

What if other children sue because they believe child 1 coerced mom and dad? What if mom and dad’s legacy is now tarnished because children 2 and 3 (and the subsequent grandchildren) feel slighted? 

An Easy Way To Fix Unequal Distribution to Heirs

There is an easy way to fix the unequal distribution issue, if you want to, however, you may not want to.  To do so we would need a product or asset that could be obtained relatively cheaply and provide a lump sum that can be made certain or grow over time and be paid upon the passing of a specific person.  Oh yeah…there is it is called Life Insurance.

I have done this type of strategy numerous times in the past, but I don’t think it will work here as parents don’t care about the unequal distribution, but:

  1. A specific bequest of business to Child 1
  2. Survivor Life Insurance purchased on mom and dad for pennies on the dollar
  3. Survivor policy is split between other children

Worst case scenario mom and dad die Child 1 gets his business other children get cash in an amount equivalent to the estimated business value.  In the best-case scenario, everyone lives forever.


Regardless of the “fix” would you consider distributing your assets unequally to your children? Have you ever received an unequal inheritance?



  1. In my experience, everything has always been done very equally. I think this is the best way, otherwise your legacy will likely be one of resentment.

  2. The best case scenario would be for parents to leave equal shares to their kids. I think that most families have a “favorite child” and to add money to the mix would just tarnish the siblings’ relationship after the parents are gone.

  3. I think the best case scenario is to leave everything equal, but how often is that the fairest. Say you’re the one leaving the money, and you’ve got 3 kids, one of which was your primary caregiver for the last X years of your life, because you had some ailment other than “old age” where you’d need a lot of care – should this kid get screwed and get an equal share to the other two, who did drastically less in caring for you?

    • I have seen the care given problem come up many times…it is terrible and just breeds resent regardless of the distribution schedule.

  4. Great post (and I am not just saying that like all of those cheap and fast commenters). When I was reading this, I thought, “I don’t care what he has to say, I would always side with equal distribution.” Then, when you threw the business aspect in, my plan to resist your persuasiveness was foiled. That makes the most sense to me. It wouldn’t seem right to split the business with the other children. I also like your idea about the life insurance.

    • The life insurance option is such an easy fix (AND CHEAP in some cases) it is ridiculous it isn’t use more often in these cases.

  5. It is all just money and STUFF. I think it ought to be split equally. I would hate to have my kids feel as though I loved one over the other. I don’t want to pour on more grief!

    • There is an argument then maybe one should just sit down and explain the situation with the kids…b/c if you were to split evenly that one who worked harder/or at all in the business will have resentment = no win!

  6. My kids aren’t much older than your little one so right now I would imagine splitting everything evenly among the 3 of them. But decades from now who knows? If they were in very different situations I could see where an unequal distribution would make sense.

  7. I think it should be fair, and sometimes, fair is not equal in specific situations such as where one child contributed 10 years of his life to the family business, whereas the others didn’t.

  8. Unequal in your client’s case is what makes sense to me.

    To bad the parents couldn’t have started to transfer the business assets to the “working with them” son to begin with. But then again, who thinks about that during the climb up…

    That for sharing, I’ll all for unequal distributions in this case.

  9. I think careful thought should be put into how you divide your estate. It’s possible some of your children put more work into the family business or spent more time caring for you in your old age. It’s possible you don’t approve of how the money will be spent by one of your children when you pass. Regardless of your reasons for unequal distribution, it is YOUR money. You do what you want with it in life and in death.

  10. I’m actually for unequal splits. I can certainly see situations when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.

    In this case, with the business it wouldn’t be fair for the son NOT to get most of the business. He helped build it when the others didn’t.

    I already know straight up that my parents estates will not be split equally. I’ll be getting less than “my share” I have no doubt about that.

    I’m not splitting my estate equally either. My daughter is from a previous relationship and her father is still very much in her life. The way I see it is that my daughter and son will each get half of “my half” of our estate and my son will get all of “my husband’s half”. Which works out to 75% of our money going to my son. BUT my daughter will also get an inheritance from her father, if he has one to give.

    I do think it’s important to discuss this with the kids before you die. Don’t just leave it as a big surprise when the time comes. Take a moment to explain to everyone why you’ve decided it the way you did. Hopefully you can reduce some of the fighting if you can explain yourself.

  11. I don’t feel that simply because the one son worked “in the business” that he should be entitled to the lions share of the business in the end. WHAT did he really contribute to build it? His own money and additional time? Or was he employed like anybody else would have been and received / taken money from the business???? Sometimes parents consider presence as being “contributing” or to help build. Unequal distribution always taints the legacy of the ones leaving the will towards not only the slighted children but grandchildren too. If you really want to punch the other children in the gut just go ahead and divide it unequally.

  12. Interesting reading and good idea. How about when there are two children and only one has children? Grandparents are very close to the grandchildren and would like to leave them something. Childless offspring might feel most assets are going to sibling’s family. These things are not easy to work out.

    • Dee,

      That is a FANTASTIC example. A specific bequest to grandchildren may make childless child seem slighted as their branch of the family tree is getting less.

      • I’m currently going through this issue from the unfortunate angle of being one of 3 heirs to a popular business, the property where the business resides, and monetary assets. But our father never got around to writing a Will, even with much prodding from friends and family.

        My brother was working in the family business for the last months before dad’s death. It was quite clear to everyone who knew my father and worked for him, that he intended for that sibling to have the business. Unfortunately our sister, who has been estranged for many years, now wants stake in the business but has no intention of working there and doesn’t even live in the same state.

        She and I are co-administrators & our brother working in the business renounced his rights as an admin. So I need to make a case for him to have the business and maybe we could work out the distribution of the other assets based on the value of the biz. (Although I get the sense that my sister wants an “equal” piece of everything)

        Our current lawyer keeps pushing on the LLC idea for the biz. But to me this sounds too complicated for the simplicity of the business (a barber shop where Dad was sole proprietor). Besides, my sister and I don’t work at the shop so why should either of us profit from our brother’s hard work? Not all assets are created equal.

  13. There is something that the person who worked the business did/has received that the other sibs did not it is called a salary and bonuses.
    In our family case our Father has ZERO retirement so our brother should buy out the business at a fair market value.

    • Katie,

      Each family and each case is absolutely different which is why a cookie cutter response that some CPAs, some attorneys and some financial professionals have is wrong and detrimental to a family. Notwithstanding, it sounds like a sale might be the right thing in your situation as your father needs a way to get through retirement. I have been involved in some situations where it was a part sale, part gift (to defer cap gains) and then a consulting/employment contract as many owners can’t even imagine not working.

      The post was really about what occurs at death. While I don’t have much information about your situation it sounds like something called a one-way buy sell would be prudent to look into. This is where your brother would buy the business from the estate using life insurance on dad’s life (or a note). This would be set up if dad wasn’t going to sell him the business during dad’s lifetime.

  14. would it be different if parent supported 1 child until advanced degree was earned at age 30 to the tune of $60,000 or so and didn’t do that for another child? Should that be equated at some point as well in a will if not before?

    • Very interesting question. As you know I can’t say what is right or wrong since it comes down to each testator’s testamentary intent. Notwithstanding, I think most parents look at education differently then lets saying funding a car, vacation or home. It is almost like education is a naturally extension from a parent still raising the child.

      As far as doing anything before, you unintentionally raise an interesting question of advancements (advancing a future inheritance). If I were a parent in this situation I might say something along the lines of “You could have chosen the same path” but I could easily make your intended argument about keeping things even.

      While I can dance around the issue, I think the important thing to remember is not to hold your sibling out for your parents’ choices.

  15. I want to leave the family property to our son, who loves it and has lived all his life on it and helped with our family business, but I was told by a public trustee that it is very difficult to do this in a way his sister, who has taken no interest in the property for years, can be deterred from contesting it, even if she is left something deemed to be of equal value, because valuations vary from year to year. I have another property which currently would be of equal or greater value and in a way is even more valuable, as it is rented out, providing a reasonable annual income, but the trustee said that if our home property was to increase in value our daughter could contest the will, and that it would be better to just allow them to sell both properties and split the money, but there is more to a property than its monetary value, and our home property means a lot to our son. How can I ensure he can keep that? Should I try putting it into his name while I’m still around?

    • Lets start with where are you from? I am only asking because you are using the term “trustee” where in the United States the person would be called an Attorney.

      • Sorry – posted this as a new message instead of a reply to your query, so here it is again (apologies to others for duplication):
        I’m in Australia. I should have mentioned I also have money in bank accounts and shares, but most of this is either in my super or a family trust. I was told by the public trustee that I can’t distribute anything from those in my will because they are seen as separate entities and I have to consult a solicitor and my accountant about what will happen to those. I hadn’t considered this loss of control when I set up the family trust. I’m also afraid my daughter is likely to spend whatever she gets without adequately saving or investing, but that’s another matter …

  16. I’m in Australia. I should have mentioned I also have money in bank accounts and shares, but most of this is either in my super or a family trust. I was told by the public trustee that I can’t distribute anything from those in my will because they are seen as separate entities and I have to consult a solicitor and my accountant about what will happen to those. I hadn’t considered this loss of control when I set up the family trust. I’m also afraid my daughter is likely to spend whatever she gets without adequately saving or investing, but that’s another matter …

  17. I am a child of a mix family dealing with siblings, step siblings and half sibling.
    Why can’t a will be listed as uncontestable? It is the wishes of the parent(s) to distribute this money as UNFAIRLY as it is. Their wishes. My father is leaving double to his son with his current wife because he is both their child.
    He has sucked everything out of them while they were alive, why not when they die.
    Additional resentment doesn’t happen when the will is read, it is added upon from a life long “he gets I don’t” attitude.
    Get on with life people and all you parents out there. Take interest in your children while alive. Distribute assets while you are living. Don’t keep anything to fight over. If they don’t take interest in you while you are alive, then don’t leave them anything when you are gone

    • Susie, I appreciate the comment, but I am confused with your message. First, a Will can include an in terrorem clause (a No Contest Clause) which says “if you challenge you get zero.”

      After that I don’t really get what you are talking about? Are you saying they can do what they want, and you have to accept it? or that parents should treat everyone equally? Sorry I am confused.

  18. I am the only daughter with four other siblings. My mother just died. My father died 10 years ago. What I have come to find out is that the 50 year old family business was turned over to 2 brothers working in the family business. There are 3 brothers who have worked in the business. No one was aware this was done (except the 2 brothers obviously). As the only daughter, I was not allowed to join the business (trucking). Subsequently, I educated myself (on student loans) and went on to healthcare management.
    In addition to that, parents put all personal property in the one of the brothers name (one of the brothers who got the business) and he has been named the executor of the estate. His name is also on all bank accounts (over A$750K in cash). We have yet to determine if there is a will. Can you have an executor of an estate without a will?
    We are talking about at least $10M in assets, including property (both personal and business). It has been a year and a half. Zero has been settled. The one brother who has all in his name feels comfortable giving the 3 remaining children 1/5 of my mothers home. He also said he is willing to write a check for 1/5th of what is in the bank (and he will keep the full share after distributing it and the person receiving pays taxes. There are several farms and other properties and he is now saying he bought that with his own money or with money from the business after it was turned over to him.
    This is obviously some strange and convoluted issues involved in all of this and the disappointment among those who have no control and stand to lose a great deal. Have no documents to prove any of this ownership or business transfer and am planning the “conversation” with the brothers. Not sure about the timing of this conversation also. Need help.


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