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Estate planning when relationships are unclear

The importance of making an estate plan is something people in Pennsylvania have been hearing for decades. In some situations, the consequences of failing to plan for the future can be far-reaching. In fact, a man's lack of estate planning ended up before the highest court of one state.

The case involved a man who was accused of sexually assaulting his daughter the same year he and his wife divorced. During an investigation by Child Protective Services, the circuit court in the state where the family lived terminated the man's parental rights. He was indicted for child sexual abuse the next year, but he died before the case came to trial.

After his death, his daughter sought to claim his estate as his rightful heir, but the lower courts denied her inheritance because of the termination of her father's rights. On appeal, the state supreme court upheld the ruling, but the justices were divided. Three judges ruled that the laws of the state did not support the daughter's rights in this case while the dissenting judges stated that the lack of clarification in state law did not deny the child's right to her biological father's estate.

The justices argued and debated the definitions of parent and descendant. However, the fact remains that the case would not have been necessary had the father made a will. Estate planning, especially in situations where the relationship to the heirs may be uncertain, is one way of reducing confusion that leads to litigation. More importantly, it allows those in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to ensure that their assets are distributed according to their wishes.

Source: chron.com, "Court: Kids can't inherit from parents with no will, rights", May 13, 2018

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