What to do when a family member is disinherited

5 min read

How to help a relative who has been left out of the will

  • Understand that strong emotional reactions can lead to contentious interactions with disinherited family members.

  • Remind them that the will is not the only way that assets can be inherited and there may be trusts or other benefits coming to them.

  • Sometimes, it’s important to simply recognize their feelings and help them get through their pain.

  • Don’t forget to acknowledge your own feelings and the impact these issues have on your well-being.

The loss of a loved one brings not only grief, but also a seemingly endless list of tasks and decisions. As you collect documents and make telephone calls, emotions often run high, and tempers can flare. It’s no surprise that in the midst of what all seems like too much, old pain from parental relationships or unresolved sibling rivalry can rise up again as your family members express their feelings about the will and their inheritance.

The old adage says that money can’t buy love, but in many families, money and possessions are seen as an expression of approval (or disapproval) of our life choices and even our personality. Even when a family doesn’t equate money with love, not being recognized in a will—especially by parents or grandparents—can be as emotionally devastating as it is financially disappointing. Some may even consider it a blow from the grave.

It is important at the outset to remind any family member who is either not named in the will or didn’t receive what they expected that the will is not as important as they might think. There are many ways a loved one may have chosen to pass on assets to them outside of the will, such as trusts, life insurance payouts, payable-on-death accounts, and many others. Make sure they investigate these possibilities before concluding that they were slighted.

Start with understanding

When confronted with loss, some family members may not be able to communicate their intense feelings in a way that is helpful to them or others, especially if the relationship was difficult. After all, someone important to them is gone, and with them any opportunity to resolve past hurts. In the face of this injustice, some even choose to contest the will when they find they have been disinherited or feel that someone else has been unfairly favored.

If you can, maintaining your calm in this emotional storm will help you, and it can help you help others. Not everyone around you will be able to keep a cool head, nor does everybody want to make peace. Some family members may even intentionally aggravate the situation or try to divide the family. You have your own feelings about your family relationships and can probably see both sides of the story. Knowing how to protect your emotional well-being and your interests at the same time will keep you grounded and help you in restoring family harmony.

Take a step back for a moment if you are feeling agitated—and make sure you have someone outside of the family you can vent your frustrations to without aggravating the situation. You will be able to see more clearly and not react to provocations, threats, or your own strong feelings.

Getting legal clarity

The legal aspects of inheritance are often the clearest part of this emotional journey. Probate law almost always favors the will and those named in it as beneficiaries. A qualified attorney in your state can advise you of the circumstances under which a will can be contested. (Likewise, if your loved one's estate plan includes a trust that is not subject to probate, that trust is subject to different laws but is often at least as ironclad.) 

Typically any relative who has been disinherited has the right to contest the will, but in most cases, contesting a will is expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally painful—and, in the end, it may not be fruitful.

Moving forward emotionally

In the meantime, working to regain family harmony and handle strife is a daunting challenge, though one that can be rewarding. When people are grieving a relationship that can no longer be resolved, especially when money and possessions symbolize that grief, your challenge is less about how to avoid or prevail in an estate battle and more how to interact as productively and peacefully as possible.

Being disinherited, particularly by a parent, can cause self-esteem to plummet and call a lifetime of memories into question. Help them reframe the relationship to put the matter into a more productive perspective.

Although you are under no legal obligation to give anything to the disinherited person, this doesn’t mean there will be no moral and emotional consequences. If you do your best to act fairly, you will likely feel calmer over time. If you believe they have been treated unfairly, that may be worth admitting, especially if you want to restore or maintain the relationship. You and the other beneficiaries will have to decide for yourselves what it would mean emotionally to grant their request and what would it mean financially to end the fight. Always consult a lawyer before making decisions or even having conversations like these, as they could have serious legal repercussions.

Acknowledging the situation

It may not always be easy to listen to your family members, but hearing what someone says about their pain and demonstrating that you understand why they might feel that way can be a profoundly healing process. Validating their feelings will often help both of you with your grief.

If your own feelings permit, you can talk about why this happened and acknowledge the relationship’s history. Make them feel seen, even if you have to talk about both good and bad memories.

You can also reassure the person that being left out of the will is not a binding judgment on their worth. Being disinherited, particularly by a parent, can cause self-esteem to plummet and call a lifetime of memories into question. Help them reframe the relationship to put the matter into a more productive perspective.

As matters deescalate, you may also want to let your loved one choose some meaningful household possessions to keep, as long as the will beneficiaries agree. A small, symbolic object may help alleviate some of their pain by giving them a concrete item to focus on.

Owning your feelings

Although a confrontation about inheritance might throw you off balance at such a difficult time, it’s most often worth putting in the work to maintain your most cherished relationships. If you are confident that you are making the right decisions but the conflict is not resolving, the situation may be beyond repair. That can be difficult to accept. Contesting a will is often about more than money. As you work through the issues, it is worth keeping sight of the things that money can’t buy.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.