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Is it OK to divide your estate unevenly among your adult kids?

In an ideal world, all of your children would be equally successful. However, that's rarely the case. For any number of reasons, some beyond a person's control, adult siblings may end up with vastly different levels of financial security. One may be a world-renowned chef with several restaurants and a TV show. Another may be a respected professor, living in comfort but not vast wealth. Yet another may have never found his or her niche and is barely making ends meet on his income, with some help from his parents.

Scenarios similar to this aren't uncommon. So what do parents do when they plan their estate? They may want to leave their financially struggling child a larger share of their inheritance, knowing that their other kids don't need the money. However, they know (or at least fear) that it will cause a rift in the family and that the more successful kids will resent them and their sibling.

Kids have different needs throughout their lives. Chances are, as a parent, you've given all of your kids some financial help when they needed it, whether as young adults or when they got older. Parents shouldn't feel guilty for continuing to help a struggling adult child financially after they're gone.

Of course, if the child has already blown through numerous gifts or loans due to substance abuse or simply because he or she hasn't learned to be responsible with money, that's another story. "Spendthrift trusts" are often used by parents who don't want to cut kids out of their estate, but don't want them to waste their inheritance or use it to harm themselves.

In the end, parents have the right to do what they believe is fair. However, as one Maryland estate planning attorney points out, it's important to discuss your decision with all of your kids to help minimize hurt and anger. She says, "I urge parents to explain that they're not trying to be unfair, but they recognize that some of the kids are more successful than others."

This is never a comfortable conversation to have. However, it's better that you explain your decision while you're able to do so than have your kids find out about it after you're gone. Your estate planning attorney can offer advice for having these and other difficult conversations with loved ones as you prepare your estate plan.

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