Parens Patriae and the Disinherited Child
57 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2019 Last revised: 9 Jun 2020
Date Written: July 2, 2019
Most countries have safeguards in place to protect children from disinheritance. The United States is not one of them. Since its founding, America has clung tightly to the ideal of testamentary freedom, refusing to erect any barriers to a testator’s ability to disinherit his or her children—regardless of the child’s age or financial needs. Over the years, however, disinheritance has become more common given the evolving American family, specifically the increased incidences of divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation. Critics of the American approach have offered up solutions largely based on the two models currently employed by other countries: 1) the forced heirship approach, in which all children are entitled to a set percentage of their parent’s estate; and 2) family maintenance statutes, which provide judges with the discretionary authority to override a testator’s wishes and instead award some portion of the estate to the testator’s surviving family members. This Article takes a different approach and looks at the issue of disinheritance through a new lens: the doctrine of parens patriae. Just as this doctrine limits the decision-making autonomy of living parents vis-à-vis their children, this Article argues that it should likewise limit the dead hand control of deceased parents. Focusing on minor children, adult children who remain dependent as a result of disability, and adult children who are survivors of parental abuse, it is the contention of this Article that testamentary freedom must sometimes yield to the state’s inherent parens patriae authority to protect children from harm. Specifically, this Article proposes that courts should refuse to enforce testamentary schemes that disinherit those children if that disinheritance would constitute abuse or neglect. Such an approach is not only mandated by the doctrine of parens patriae but, in contrast to the approaches other countries have adopted, is more deferential to testamentary freedom. The limitations it does impose represent a relatively modest curtailment of the rights testators currently possess and, at the same time, are consistent with existing exceptions to testamentary freedom, most notably those in place to protect spouses and creditors as well as those that prohibit the enforcement of testamentary provisions that violate public policy.
Keywords: inheritance, parens patriae, children and the law
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