Conditional Bequests and Devisements

The law generally gives benefactors great leeway to set conditions for beneficiaries to inherit assets from an estate or trust. This is because the benefactor has every right to disperse his or her assets while beneficiaries have no such right. Often called “dead hand control,” these conditions are often meant to promote a certain type of lifestyle or at the very least prevent beneficiaries from harming themselves with the wealth passed on.


When conditional bequests and devisements are attached to a last will and testament, probate courts rarely concern themselves with whether the conditions are fair to heirs or even wise to try and implement. Rather, probate courts function to ensure proper transfer of assets and that the deceased’s wishes are carried out.


Some situations where benefactors may attempt to impose certain conditions for inheritance can include requiring an alcoholic seeking treatment, children and grandchildren holding down steady jobs, or even finishing school before collecting inheritance. Unfortunately, theses of demands rarely work out beneficiaries sometimes would rather choose to follow their free will than comply with demands of morality or industriousness.


What types of inheritance conditions are not enforceable?


In order for dead hand controls to be valid, probate courts must find them certifiable and reasonable, meaning beneficiaries should have a chance of meeting the expectations and the probate court can verify. Some other conditional bequests which are typically not enforceable are:


  • Restraints on marriage that dictate beneficiaries cannot marry at all or may only marry persons of a certain race. However, benefactors may impose time limits on when beneficiaries must marry to claim money and may dictate the religion of the spouse
  • Encouraging divorce by explicitly promising assets if the beneficiary leaves his or her spouse
  • Requiring the beneficiary practice a certain religion
  • The beneficiary destroying his or her own property
  • Doing anything illegal


Other drawbacks to conditional bequests


One of the biggest drawbacks of conditional bequests is that once the benefactor signs his or her last will and testament and passes away, there is essentially no way to amend the conditions or adapt to changing circumstances. Furthermore, as humorous and creative as some types of clauses sound, they often lead to inefficient asset disbursement, legal battles, and can generally create unnecessary strife.


The same can hold true with incentive trusts, which can impose exactly the same values but instead of a probate court overseeing the conditions, a the trust’s administrator would fill that role since the trust does not pass through probate. In either case, testators should think long and hard about whether their wishes are practical and end up instilling the values so desired.

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