New reproductive capabilities pose interesting challenges to one’s estate plan. Typical language in a will or trust might read, for example, “upon the death of my wife, the remainder of my estate shall be distributed to my descendants, per stirpes.” The per stirpes designation means that the next generation steps into the shoes of a parent who predeceases the testator of the will or trust.
This therefore begs the question – who are your descendants? The answer may not be as clear-cut as you might imagine.
Modern medicine has turned reproductive capabilities – and therefore who might be considered a descendant of yours – upside down. In generations past, once a woman’s biological clock expired, she couldn’t have any more children – and the only way to expand a family beyond such event would be to adopt.
Today eggs can be harvested, frozen cryogenically and artificially inseminated at ages that used to be considered beyond one’s normal child-bearing years. Further, with surrogate mothers and donations of both eggs and sperm, the biological “parent” of the embryo isn’t as certain as it was yesterday.
Allow me to illustrate my point. Assume that Father and Mother have two sons, Greg and Peter. Father dies leaving everything to Mother. Mother’s will directs that the estate is to be left equally to Greg and Peter, and if either son predeceases her, then the share that would have been distributed to the predeceased son would instead be distributed per stirpes to that son’s descendants.
Assume further that Peter predeceases Mother, leaving behind his wife Sarah, and a daughter Rachel. Peter’s wife Sarah decides to have a reproductive specialist artificially inseminate her with Peter’s cryogenically frozen sperm. After several procedures it doesn’t work out as Sarah has reproductive deficiencies of her own. So Sarah finds a surrogate mother who is then artificially inseminated with Peter’s sperm and gives birth to a son, Jacob. Mother then dies without ever changing her will.
Who inherits Peter’s share? Remember that Mother’s will says everything to Greg and Peter, per stirpes. Since Peter died, the per stirpes designation would mandate that Peter’s child(ren) would step into Peter’s shoes to inherit. So we know that Greg still receives one-half (1/2) of Mother’s estate. But who are Peter’s children? We do know that Rachel is Peter’s daughter. That much is a fact. Does Rachel inherit Peter’s ½ or must she share it with Jacob?
The legal question therefore is whether Jacob is a descendant of Peter? Peter’s sperm produced Jacob after Peter’s death, but before the death of Mother – at the direction of Peter’s wife Sarah through a surrogate mother. I believe that under Florida law, Jacob would be entitled to split Peter’s share with Rachel.
Consider, however, that Peter may have even more children depending upon who had custody of his seed and how often it was used. What if Sarah produced another child in the same way Jacob was produced? Assume that the next child was born after Mother’s death. Couldn’t you argue that the class of beneficiaries who would inherit Peter’s share could be unlimited? How could the personal representative for the estate know when to distribute Peter’s share if another child could be born long after Mother’s death? For this reason Florida law would likely treat any children born before Mother’s death as a descendant of Peter for purposes of Mother’s will.
What if Peter had instead donated to a sperm bank and a married couple, not related to the family at all, used it to produce a child? Here Florida law would not treat that child as Peter’s descendant. Donations to a sperm bank for third party use are generally not, for legal purposes, considered a descendant of the donor.
With modern reproductive medicine improving all of the time, and with the number of different choices that are available today, it isn’t hard to imagine any number of scenarios that could call into question who a proper descendant may be under any given will.
All of these issues can be addressed through the drafting of language that clarifies the intent of Mother and Father. If Mother and Father only wanted biological and adopted children of Peter during his lifetime to step into his shoes for purposes of inheritance, then this could be written into the legal documents: “For purposes of our will, a descendant of a child of ours shall only include those individuals born or adopted before the death of our child, or those born within nine months following the death of our child.”
On the other hand, Mother may want Jacob, and any other similar issue – to step into Peter’s shoes for purposes of the inheritance. She may look at Jacob as a gift from Peter – regardless how Jacob was conceived.
These are difficult concepts that many estate plans fail to consider. If you have strong feelings one way or the other, it might be time to dust off your documents to review how “descendant” is defined under the document, if it is defined at all.
© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.