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Dead Hand Control: Can You Condition a Gift on a Will or Trust on Who a Beneficiary Marries?


There is a trope you see in old movies where a person stands to inherit a great fortune from a deceased relative provided they “spend a night in a haunted house.” While this exact scenario may not occur in real life, there is a legal concept known as “dead hand control,” where a person uses their will or trust in an attempt to manipulate their family’s future behavior using the promise of an inheritance.

When Does a Conditional Gift Violate “Public Policy”?

One example of dead hand control is conditioning a gift in a will or trust on the beneficiary’s marriage–or more precisely, on the type of person the beneficiary marriages.

A 2009 case from Illinois, In re Estate of Feinberg, is often cited as an example of this type of condition. This case involved a trust established by a married couple for the benefit of their multiple children and grandchildren. The trust contained a clause stating that any descendant “who married outside the Jewish faith or whose non-Jewish spouse did not convert to Judaism within one year of marriage” would be deemed “deceased” for purposes of the trust. In other words, if any of the children or grandchildren married a non-Jew, they would be effectively disinherited.

The Illinois Supreme Court upheld this restriction. It rejected a challenge that such a clause violated “public policy.” Indeed, the Court said this was not even technically a case of “dead hand control,” as it did not require any beneficiary to comply with an ongoing requirement. Rather, it was a decision by the couple to reward those grandchildren “whose lives most closely embraced the values” they cherished, i.e., their Jewish faith.

The question of when a condition in a will or trust violates public policy–and is therefore unenforceable–is a tricky one to answer. In general, courts have declined to enforce gifts that are conditioned on a beneficiary getting a divorce or personally converting to a particular religion. And as you might expect, a condition that requires the beneficiary to do something illegal would not be upheld in court.

It is also worth noting that not all cases of dead hand control involve family members. One particularly notable example of this involved the estate of a man named McNair Ilgrenfritz. According to the BBC, Mr. Ilgrenfritz was a composer who died in 1950 and “left $125,000 to be claimed by a major opera house should it agree to stage one of his self-penned operas” after his death. Apparently, the New York Metropolitan Opera considered the request before declining to claim the award.

Speak with a Lee County, Florida, Estate Planning Attorney Today

Before you set off to include a bunch of conditions in your own will or trust, you should consult with a qualified Fort Myers estate planning lawyer who can advise you of the potential legal risks. Contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 today to schedule a free consultation with a member of our estate planning team.


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