What Are Siblings' Inheritance Rights After a Parent's Death?

The death of a parent can be an extremely difficult time, made even harder if there are disputes over the inheritance. While parents are free to divide their estate however they choose through a will, siblings may still have certain inheritance rights after their parent dies, even if they are excluded from the will. Understanding these potential rights can help siblings navigate the complex legal landscape when settling a parent’s estate.

When a parent dies without a will, most states follow “intestacy” laws that presume siblings will inherit equal shares of the estate. However, if there is evidence that equal division would be unfair, some siblings may inherit more based on factors like how much care they provided the deceased parent.

Even when there is a will that excludes one or more siblings, they may be able to receive a portion of the inheritance if local laws grant children a right to some of the estate regardless of the will. Siblings also have options to contest the will or request a “mandatory share” through the courts.

What Happens If a Parent Dies Without a Will?

Dying “intestate” means someone passed away without having a legal will in place. When this happens, each state has default inheritance laws that determine who is entitled to the deceased person’s property.

These intestacy laws create a hierarchy for inheritance, with a surviving spouse and any children as the top priority. If there is no spouse but the parent is survived by children, the estate is typically divided equally among the children. This means adult siblings would generally split their parent’s assets into equal shares.

However, state laws often allow exceptions to equal division if it would be unjust. For example, if one sibling had been providing daily care to an ailing parent for many years, while the other siblings were estranged or uninvolved, the primary caregiver may petition for a larger share of the estate. The court has discretion to divide assets equitably based on each person’s level of dependence on the deceased parent and their contributions to the parent’s well-being.

Without a will, siblings usually have an automatic legal right to an inheritance from the parent’s estate. But the portion they receive could vary considerably based on factors like:

  • Caregiving: Siblings who provided more physical, emotional or financial care to the deceased parent may argue for a larger share.

  • Estrangement: Siblings who were estranged or absent from the parent’s life may receive smaller shares.

  • Financial dependence: Siblings who were more financially dependent on the parent may receive more of the estate.

  • Heirs at law: In some states, biological and adopted children are automatic “heirs at law” with rights to a certain percentage of the estate, regardless of caregiving history or relationship status.

  • Surviving spouse’s share: In most states, a surviving husband or wife has priority and will inherit a substantial portion of the estate before any children, which decreases the overall assets available to siblings.

Without a will, the court has significant discretion to divide the inheritance equitably among the siblings. Having an experienced probate attorney assist with filing petitions can help ensure caregivers receive their fair share.

Can Siblings Be Excluded from a Will?

Yes, a parent can exclude one or more siblings from their will, either by specifically naming the siblings to be excluded or by simply not naming them as beneficiaries. This may completely block estranged or less-involved children from receiving any inheritance at all.

However, even if siblings are excluded from a will, some states provide certain inheritance rights for a deceased parent’s children through “forced heirship” laws or similar provisions.

For example, Louisiana’s forced heirship laws grant children the right to claim a portion of their parent’s estate, regardless of whether they are included in the will. The percentage that forced heirs are entitled to depends on the number of children the deceased parent had.

Other states like New York have “right of election” statutes that allow surprise disinherited children to elect to receive a share of the estate equal in value to what they would have received if the parent died without a will. This is not an automatic right – the excluded child must proactively file a claim with the court to receive their intestate share.

The ability for disinherited heirs to claim part of an estate against the will’s wishes varies considerably by state. In some areas, like California, a parent can completely exclude children from inheriting anything. Consult an estate planning attorney to understand the specific laws that apply to your parent’s will.

Can Siblings Contest the Will?

Yes, siblings can challenge the validity of a parent’s will if they believe it is unfair or invalid in some way. Reasons for contesting a will include:

  • Undue influence - Arguments that the deceased was coerced or manipulated into making or changing the will by a malicious third party.

  • Lack of capacity - Assertions that the deceased lacked sound mental capacity when making the will.

  • Improper execution - Claims that the will was not properly signed and witnessed.

  • Discovery of a newer will - Disputes based on finding a more recent will than the one filed with the court.

  • Dishonesty or fraud - Allegations that information was concealed or the deceased was intentionally misled.

To contest a will, the sibling will need to file a “caveat” with the probate court that essentially blocks the estate from being distributed until the contest is resolved. Sufficient evidence must then be presented to support the grounds for contesting the will’s validity.

Contesting a will can be an expensive and drawn-out process that leads to ongoing rifts within families. Siblings considering this option should work with an experienced probate litigation attorney to assess the merits of the case and likelihood of success before filing.

If the contest is successful, the court may declare the will invalid and order the estate to be distributed through intestate succession as if there was no will. This would result in a more equal distribution among siblings, according to state laws. However, will contests can also be unsuccessful if the court determines the challenge is unsubstantiated, in which case distribution will proceed according to the terms of the original will.

Before starting a will contest, siblings should carefully weigh the risks, costs and potential damage to family relationships against the prospect of receiving a larger share of the inheritance. In some cases, it may be possible to use the threat of a will contest to reach a settlement with the estate and avoid a drawn-out court battle.

Can Siblings Request a Mandatory Share?

In some states, children or surviving spouses who were left out of a will or feel they received less than they are entitled to can request a “mandatory share” of the estate. This allows them to receive a portion of the inheritance, regardless of the will’s provisions.

The mandatory share is typically one-third to one-half of what that person would have received if the deceased died without a will. To receive this elective share, the sibling must proactively file a claim with the probate court within a specified timeframe after the parent’s death.

Factors like how much of the estate goes to a surviving husband or wife versus children will impact the total value of assets the sibling’s mandatory share is based on. The closer the relationship, the larger the mandatory share.

Pursuing a mandatory share is less costly and contentious than filing a full will contest, and allows siblings to receive a portion of the estate without invalidating the entire will. However, it also reduces what other beneficiaries will inherit. Mandatory shares are not available in all states, so it is important to verify your state’s laws.

What If You Are Entitled to an Inheritance?

If you have been confirmed as a beneficiary with rights to some or all of a deceased parent’s estate, you are legally entitled to receive the inheritance. No one, including a sibling who is executor or trustee, has the authority to prevent you from receiving what you are owed.

If you believe your sibling is improperly preventing you from obtaining your share of the inheritance, you can file a petition with the probate court to demand distribution and accounting of the estate. An experienced estate litigation attorney can help you enforce your rights.

As a named beneficiary, you may need to provide documentation to the estate executor or trustee to facilitate receipt of your share. This can include:

  • Copy of the death certificate
  • Your contact information
  • Tax identification number
  • Proof of identity

If you are still not receiving funds after providing documentation, seek legal assistance immediately to compel the estate to pay out your share. This type of financial abuse of beneficiaries is illegal.


The death of a parent can often lead to complex inheritance issues, especially when siblings’ rights come into play. While parents can disinherit children in their wills, siblings may still have legal recourse in many states to claim a portion of the estate.

Understanding intestate succession laws, options like contesting a will or requesting a mandatory share, and simply asserting your rights as a named beneficiary can help siblings obtain a fair inheritance after a parent dies.

Consulting with a probate and estate litigation attorney is crucial for siblings to navigate the nuances in state laws and make informed decisions when settling a parent’s estate. With proper guidance, families can avoid drawn-out court battles and reach resolutions that honor the parent’s wishes while still providing for each child.