24 Mar $1 Bequests Are A Terrible Idea: Shelly Joyner, Associate Attorney
It’s common for people to disinherit family members for various reasons. When consulting with clients who want to specifically exclude someone from their estate plan, they ask, “should I give them $1?”
My answer is always an emphatic, “absolutely not.”
I’m not 100% sure when or how this $1 trend started, but I’ve encountered it often. I assume the theory behind it is “if I specifically name them and give them $1, they’ll know that I didn’t forget about them, and I want them to know that I don’t want them to have more than $1.” While I understand the strong psychological need to express these sentiments, the legal aspects of leaving a $1 gift have the potential to negatively impact everyone involved with the estate.
If you give someone $1 in a will, they are required to be a part of the probate process.
Remember, a will must complete the probate process before an inheritance, of any size, is given to beneficiaries. Everyone who is given a bequest in a will must be notified about the probate process.
- Best case scenario: all beneficiaries receive notice of application for probate and a copy of the will, but sign waivers that basically say, “I don’t need to get official notices via certified mail regarding the probate process. It’s fine if the executor just emails or calls me to let me know what’s going on, and I have no disagreements with the contents of the will.”
- Worst case scenario: all beneficiaries receive notice of application for probate and a copy of the will, but one or all fail to sign a waiver of agreement and choose to get actively involved and contest any or all parts of the probate process. In short, a $1 gift in a will is a written invitation (via certified mail) to cause problems.
Additionally, in some cases, specifically giving someone a $1 gift could add fuel to the fire if mental capacity, validity, or undue influence are factors in the probate. A $1 gift provision could be seen as being out of character for the person who wrote the will, and therefore presented as evidence that could invalidate the will. Even if the contest isn’t successful, the extra time and expense could be incredibly detrimental to everyone involved. If an extra $50,000 (or worse) in attorney and court fees are spent because the $1 gift causes a contest, those fees come out of the estate first and the other beneficiaries get less.
“So what’s the solution?” It’s actually very simple: In the introduction of your will, we can simply add a statement that says, “It is my intention to make no provisions in this will for my son, John Doe, Jr. or his descendants.” That’s it.
Then the rest of the will can state provisions for how the other people will inherit their gifts. (Sometimes, like in the movie Knives Out which I wrote about previously, the person writing the will can choose to write a separate letter explaining why someone was disinherited.)
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