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Jewish Journal

Cutting someone out of will can leave a legacy of pain

by Soriya Daniels

August 2, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Steve Kaplan had just finished sitting shiva for his mother when he was dealt another blow: He had been written out of her will.

No written explanation. Not a word.

He was shocked, having believed his entire life that he and his mother were close. Kaplan (not his real name) was left to grapple with the implications of his exclusion.

Had he done something wrong? Did he offend her in some way she wouldn't -- and now couldn't -- reveal to him?

His mother's estate passed exclusively to his brother, his mother's sole caretaker, Kaplan said.

The betrayal left Kaplan with an open wound that would be difficult to heal. "It's not the money," said Kaplan, who is still haunted by his mother's omission.

While some might find Kaplan's experience shocking, it's not entirely uncommon. A last will and testament often brings closure to familial points of contention. But when someone makes dramatic changes to a will or trust, like deleting mention of a person entirely, it can leave deep, lasting scars when the final document is officially read.

Often, such an alienated relative is befuddled, questioning past memories of good times. Families can be ripped apart by revived sibling rivalries and jealousies.

"These people feel immense hurt and rejection," said Dr. David Falk, a clinical psychologist who specializes in bereavement issues. "It can create a sense of bitterness ... and can hurt families for generations."

Falk said that when a child is written out of a parent's will, it implies either a lack of trust in that child or insinuates some other kind of personality problem in a person. That leaves someone vulnerable to be hurt even deeper, he said, generating shame and anger.

"To blindside somebody with a swipe at the end of life leaves a legacy of pain," Falk said.

He urges families to work through disputes while everybody is still available to be angry about it, talk it out, reason with it and come to an understanding.

Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt of Schara Tzedeck Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Vancouver, Canada, pointed out that while it is not technically a violation of Jewish law to show favoritism to one child over another, it is considered unwise.

"The general principle is gadol hashalom, drawing from Yaakov, that ill fate awaits a family that favors one child," said Rosenblatt, alluding to the story of Yaakov's son, Joseph, who was favored by his father, thus causing great enmity between the brothers.

Rosenblatt believes that it is improper to write out a close family member from a will and urges people to heal their problems so that they don't get passed on through legal documents.

"Those who have disputes with their children that are so intense as to want to disinherit the child that was fed and nursed from birth, might want to find a good counselor who can help them work through their dispute," he said.

Rosenblatt added that when drawing up such documents, family relationships should be considered first, because relationships cannot be salvaged after death. Money, he said, should be secondary.

Kaplan said he'll likely never know why his 62-year relationship with his mother ended without closure. Instead, he urges others who intend to write someone out of a will or trust to at least provide an explanation in the document.

"This way, the person understands why and isn't just dangling with many different thoughts," Kaplan said.

Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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