Myth or Fact? I can leave all my assets to one child and they will “do the right thing.”

Estate planning, where you leave everything to one child, or one person, with the intent for them to distribute it to multiple people, can have unintended consequences.

First and foremost, if you do not dictate how you want your assets to be divided upon your death, either through a Will, Trust, or beneficiary designation, then no one is legally obligated to distribute your assets. Think about it – without putting your intentions in writing, there is no legal proof as to how you wanted your assets to be divided. If you have dictated that one person receive your assets upon your death, that one person has no legal obligation to give anything to anyone else.

Many people think that they have simplified their estate plan by leaving all of their assets to one child and then that one child distributes it amongst their siblings. People view this as a way to avoid probate. Unfortunately, because of the lack of legal obligation for the one child to distribute, if the one child does not abide by their moral obligation to split the assets, their siblings are going to have to resort to court action to try to secure their portion of the estate. There can also be additional gift tax consequences for the person who received the entire inheritance if they then split that inheritance among other people.

Another situation that we see the “give to one person” method is when gifting to minor children. Often people think it is easier to name a parent or guardian as the recipient of a child’s share of an estate, but this type of estate planning, or lack thereof, creates the same issues. If the portion of the estate is not explicitly dictated to go to the minor, their parent or guardian has no legal obligation to give the inheritance to the child or even hold it on their behalf.

These scenarios are certainly worst-case scenarios, but they happen frequently and can easily be avoided with clear directions in a Will or Trust as part of an overall estate plan. An estate planning attorney can discuss your options with you to make the desired distribution of your estate as simple and easy as possible for your heirs while ensuring all their rights are protected.

Elizabeth A. Caruso, Esq. is an attorney at Legacy Legal Planning, LLC, in Norwell, Massachusetts. She has been practicing estate planning, probate, and elder law on the South Shore for over a decade. If this article has sparked questions for you, please feel free to reach out via phone 781-971-5900 or email to schedule a time to discuss your unique situation.