The Unequal Inheritance: It Can Work, or It Can ‘Destroy Relationships’

“She was not only getting the advantage of the bigger house, but she was depleting the inheritance,” Mr. Margolis said.

A better arrangement would have been if the daughter had borrowed, say, $500,000, from her parents, signing a promissory note that forgave $100,000 a year over five years, Mr. Margolis said. If the last parent died three years later, he said, the remaining $200,000 “would work as an advance on that daughter’s inheritance.” If the estate did not have enough assets to give her siblings their equal share, he said, “the daughter would have to come up with some funds to make up the difference.”

Mr. Margolis said families could avoid conflicts by drawing up a “personal caregiving agreement,” which would describe the services a caregiver will provide and the type and size of compensation, such as a loan to buy a house, regular payments, or a larger share of the estate. All siblings should be involved in the process, he said.

Divvying up an estate can be especially complicated in blended families. The growth in stepfamilies is a major reason the percentage of Americans 50 and older who left their children unequal bequests more than doubled, to nearly 35 percent in 2010 from 16 percent in 1995, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Parents without stepchildren were much more likely to treat all their kids equally than parents with stepchildren,” said Robert A. Pollak, the study’s co-author and professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis.

But the study also found that the longer the relationship, the more likely a parent would leave a stepchild an inheritance equal to that of a biological or adopted child, possibly reflecting a strengthening in “trust and bonding.”

If a parent, say the husband, in a stepfamily wants to protect his children from a previous marriage, it is best to avoid leaving all assets to his wife in a will and hope she will keep a promise to leave remaining assets to her stepchildren when she dies, experts say.

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