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Inheritance, Meet Technology: Estate Claims May Be Challenged

Move over, dreams of a letter arriving from a lawyer informing the recipient a long-lost relative has died and bequeathed a tidy sum.

Between off-the-shelf DNA testing kits and online genealogical searches, family members who may have never known of each other’s existence are coming to light more often than ever before. So is the news that one’s parent may not be a biological parent, according to the article “Discovering long-lost family: Inheritance laws cover surprise relatives, but changes possible,” from The Indiana Lawyer.

This is yet another reason that wills and estate plans must be carefully drafted by an estate planning attorney. Language in the will must make it very clear that assets are only to be distributed to the known children of the married couple, unless that is not the person’s wish.

An inheritance may be left for a child who was given up through adoption or, if a previously unknown child shows up at the doorstep, the family may wish to bequeath a share of their estate to that child. There may be no legal claim, but the family may feel a moral obligation, which is entirely up to them.

Since technology is streamlining the search for lost relatives into a few keyboard clicks, the drafting of wills has become more complex. It’s not just filling out names on a form, because the will has to be drafted to prevent any unforeseen problems that may result when new relatives appear.

The search for unknown relatives usually comes from positive motives. Family members usually want to connect with long-lost cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings, out of a desire for connection and not financial gain. However, a properly prepared will should be drafted, according to the testator’s wishes.

Families are changing, with more openness, and estate plans are being adjusted accordingly.

One couple wrote a will to leave an inheritance to a grandson, even though he had been adopted by another man. Their son had died after fathering the child without marrying the child’s mother. The mother married, and her husband adopted the grandchild, but the grandparents had maintained a relationship with the family and left their son’s heir a portion of their estate.

People are more aware that family members may arrive unexpectedly. Occasionally, spouses want language in the will restricting assets only to the children who are the product of their marriage. That can spur some uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations.

When you sit down with an elder law lawyer to discuss your will and distribution of assets, you’ll need to be honest and discuss any possible heirs who might appear that were previously unknown to the family. The more details and information you can provide to the attorney, the better prepared your will can be to withstand a challenge from a ‘new relative.’ If the wish is to take care of a previously unknown family member, that can be accomplished also.

Reference: The Indiana Lawyer (May 29, 2019) “Discovering long-lost family: Inheritance laws cover surprise relatives, but changes possible”

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