When it comes to deciding who inherits what, the law gives the dead wide latitude to impose a number of conditions.
On Tuesday, the will of Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was released to the public. In addition to dictating who would receive various parts of his estate, the document also contained a more esoteric request: that his son, Cooper, be raised in one of three cities—New York, Chicago, or San Francisco—to ensure that he would grow up in a rich cultural environment.
It’s an understandable request (and as a New Yorker, I’m flattered we made the list), but is it really legal to dictate where your children grow up after you’ve already passed on? And, more broadly, to what extent can one control their descendants’ actions post-mortem?
By law, Hoffman could not have ordered his child’s guardian to keep Cooper in a particular place. Gerry W. Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, explains that wills can do no more than transfer property from the deceased to their survivors. That said, there are plenty of ways the dead can use property to encourage (or, some might say, coerce) descendants into living a certain kind of life.
If you want to influence your survivors to do something—finish college, go to mass, take good care of Fido, etc.—the best way to do it is to promise them money on the condition they fulfill your request. For example, if you want to make sure your son takes his education seriously, you can leave him $10,000 on the condition he is admitted to a top-ranked college. If Junior knows too many late homework assignments could mean missing out on a huge payday, he’s probably going to hit the books.
Because the deceased have no obligation to give away anything after death, courts tend to give them wide latitude in how their wealth is distributed. The only clear restriction is that inheritance cannot be conditioned on an illegal act (kill the neighbor and you’ll get my car). Otherwise, the condition must simply avoid acting against “public policy”—it can’t encourage something the state doesn’t like—and defining what that includes is almost entirely up to an individual judge.
Ample room for interpretation can sometimes lead to controversial results. In a landmark 2009 ruling, a judge upheld the will of a Chicago dentist that denied funds to any of his grandchildren who married a non-Jew. Various family members sued, arguing the clause provided monetary incentive towards racism. “It is at war with society’s interest in eliminating bigotry and prejudice, and conflicts with modern moral standards of religious tolerance,” one (disinherited) granddaughter wrote in a brief to the Illinois Supreme Court. The verdict? Too bad. The judge found no reason why her grandfather could not choose to favor those descendants who followed his religious traditions.
According to Beyer, this type of decision isn’t uncommon. “This is something the court is doing in its equitable powers,” says the professor. “You can even find similar cases in the same state that go different ways.”
Highlighting this issue, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had previously ruled against a different will that also attempted to mandate religious observance. In that case, the document required a son to “remain faithful” to his father’s religion in order to receive any money. Unlike the Illinois case, this court found that the will contradicted the state’s Bill of Rights, which declared no human authority could interfere with acts of conscience. Does that sound inconsistent? Now you’re getting the hang of it.
Luckily, there are some relatively standard limits to what strings one can attach to their will. Beyer advises that courts will often use public policy arguments to deny provisions that are “manifestly unfair or unreasonable.” For example, a provision that would grant a person money for divorcing their spouse would be ruled invalid.
However, when it comes to the more contentious issues, there’s no telling how a case will turn out. Hoffman graciously chose to merely suggest that Cooper be raised in a cultural center, leaving the final decision completely up to Mimi O’Donnell, the mother of his children and inheritor of his estate. However, had Hoffman chosen to stake O’Donnell’s inheritance on keeping his son in a major city, Beyer says, the outcome would rest on the relevant court’s prerogative.
“Where you draw the line can be kind of fuzzy,” Beyer says. “People have done a lot of strange things.”