Washington Law Review

Article

Parens Patriae and the Disinherited Child

June 01, 2020 | 95 Wash. L. Rev. 619

Abstract: 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 reforms based largely 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 must refuse enforcement of testamentary schemes that disinherit children who fall into those categories 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 much more deferential to testamentary freedom. The limitations imposed by this proposal 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.

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