Comedic legend Jerry Lewis passed away in August 2017. For many of us, Lewis is best remembered for his telethons to raise money for muscular dystrophy and for somehow being awarded France’s Legion of Honor. Apparently they take their comedy very seriously in France.
Despite his outsized on-screen personality and silly sense of humor, Lewis had a strained relationship with his children from his first multi-decade marriage. It was revealed recently all five of his surviving sons from his first marriage were intentionally excluded from his will. Lewis’ estate will pass onto his second wife and his adopted daughter.
While this family drama seems to be reserved for the rich and famous and their champagne wishes and caviar dreams, disinheritance is more common than you would think. Many people are under the misconception that there needs to be a reason to exclude close relatives from inheriting anything. As long as you have testamentary capacity (in laymen’s terms, this is ‘sound mind’), you can exclude someone from your will for any reason whatsoever. In fact, you don’t even have to give a reason as to why you are disinheriting them. If the language in your estate planning documents is clear as to who is being specifically disinherited, you can rest in peace knowing that your crazy sister won’t get any of your estate because of that fight you had over the Snickers bar she stole from your Halloween candy stash 50 years ago.
Recent media reports about Lewis have routinely referred to Lewis’ daughter with his second wife as his ‘adopted daughter’. I’m sure she’s beyond thrilled to have her relationship with her father qualified in this way. Adopted children are legally considered the children of the people who adopted them and have the same rights under probate and intestacy laws. In other words, the law sees no difference in the rights of adopted children and naturally born children. The only people to see any difference are usually resentful disinherited relatives.
Here’s one last thing to keep in mind. If Jerry Lewis didn’t have an estate plan, the state of California would have one for him. And the state’s estate plan would have distributed Lewis’ estate to ALL his children, regardless of whether they had a good relationship with him or not. So if you want to control who inherits and who does not inherit your estate, see an estate planning attorney today. Because, after all, your sister DID steal that Snickers bar from you 50 years ago!