“Wills and trusts, instead of designating a specific person to inherit, often name a group or class of people such as your ‘children,’ ‘issue’ or your ‘descendants.’”
Not using specific names and terms open to definition could significantly impact who might inherit from your estate or trust. There are situations where some people may choose to deliberately restrict or expand the definition of the group, which might be included in these definitions, explains the article “Who Is Your Descendant: Intentional Limitations Or Broadening Of Definitions In Your Will Or Trust” from Forbes. For some people, creating a new role of a special trust protector who holds a limited or special power of appointment to determine who should be included or removed from the definition of “issue” or descendant is worth considering.
What might arise if the wish only considers children descendants if they belong to a particular faith? Is this type of legal restriction permitted? Clauses limiting heirs to members of a particular faith or a sect within the faith may raise questions about the constitutionality of the clause. Potential heirs excluded under such provisions have argued that a religious restriction on marriage violates constitutional safeguards under the Fourteenth Amendment protecting the right to marry.
Courts have held clauses determining if potential beneficiaries qualify for distributions based on religious criteria enforceable, if the potential beneficiaries have no vested interest in the assets. Another court upheld the provisions of a will conditioning bequests to their sons as long as they married women of a particular faith.
These decisions are narrowly tailored to the specific fact patterns of the cases, since individuals are generally allowed to disinherit an heir with the exception of a spousal elective share or a community property interest. The courts have reasoned that the restriction is not on the heir to marry but on the right of the testator to bequeath property as they wish.
An alternative approach is to create a single trust for all heirs mandating the funds in the trust be used for the cost of religious education, attending religious summer camps, taking relevant religious studies, religious institutional membership, etc. The trust could use the assets to encourage religious observance. However, it may only partially address the question. What about the remainder of the assets—should it be used for all heirs regardless of religious affiliations?
An estate plan compliant with Islamic law may involve a different determination of who is a descendant. The Sharia laws of inheritance are similar to the intestacy statute. One-third of the estate may be distributed as the decedent wishes. However, the remainder must be distributed as mandated under Islamic law. The residuary inheritance shares after the first third are restricted to Muslim heirs. Additional laws prescribe specified shares of the estate to be distributed to certain heirs, depending upon which heirs are living at the moment of the decedent’s death.
Suppose you or a family member is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). The law may not address the unique considerations regarding who may be considered a descendent. Special steps may be needed to carry out your wishes as to who your descendants are. What if you view a particular child as your own, but share no genetic material with a child? Children may be adopted or born through surrogacy, so neither parent nor only one parent is biologically related to the child. While some states may recognize an equitable parent doctrine, this may be limited and not suffice to protect the testator.
There are many new complexities for determining who is a descendant, and these issues are complicated and evolving. Changing family structures and religious beliefs based on different values all impact estate planning. A special trust protector may make decisions when uncertainty arises from provisions in a will designed to carry out the wishes. This is a relatively new role and not permitted in some states, so speak with your estate planning attorney to protect your wishes and heirs.
Reference: Forbes (Aug. 4, 2023) “Who Is Your Descendant: Intentional Limitations Or Broadening Of Definitions In Your Will Or Trust”