In the 1999 movie “The Bachelor,” a young man (Chris O’Donnell) frantically proposes to his girlfriend (Renée Zellweger) and a succession of past girlfriends in the days before his 30th birthday. The reason for the man’s urgency is that his grandfather’s will states that he must be married on that date or he will miss out on a multi-million dollar inheritance. If you have seen the movie, you likely thought it was a far-fetched plot; however, it is legally feasible to condition gifts in a will or trust on the marital status, religious observance, or other behavior of the intended recipient.
Many conditions on inheritance have been upheld by courts, including conditions requiring a potential beneficiary to be or become married or, on the other hand, to remain unmarried before receiving a gift. It is also permissible to state that your spouse will not be provided for if he or she remarries after your death. Provisions requiring that a beneficiary only marry within a certain religious or ethnic group are often accepted by courts. A donor may also legally mandate certain personal behavior from a recipient in order for the gift to be made, such as abstaining from drugs or alcohol, avoiding involvement in criminal activity, or earning a college degree.
However, there are some pitfalls to watch out for with conditional gifts. You may not require a loved one to act illegally in order to receive his or her inheritance. You also must watch out for conditions that violate “public policy”, which is legal speak for anything that goes against our societal values. For example, requiring your daughter to divorce her husband, whom you hate, in order to inherit would likely be considered against the public policy of promoting marriage. If you are considering leaving any of your assets conditionally, you should consult with an estate planning attorney to ensure that your intent is clear and that any requirements you set will survive a challenge.