In the new movie The Bachelor, a character leaves his grandson $100 million in his will. The catch: To receive his inheritance, the grandson must be married before his 30th birthday. Is this sort of restriction legal? And are there any limits on the conditions one can place on a gift?
Grandpa is well within his rights; conditional gifts to people and institutions are not uncommon. Although the laws vary from state to state, judges have generally reasoned that since the beneficiary is free to decline the gift, such conditions don't violate anyone's rights.
So, wealthy parents are free to put virtually any restriction on their estates. Inherited money is most frequently contingent upon the recipient's getting a college education or staying out of legal trouble. But courts have even upheld parents' right to condition gifts on the heir's abstaining from smoking or marrying someone of a certain religion or ethnicity. And conditional gifts to charities--such as the donation of a university building with the restriction that alcohol not be served on the premises--have long been made. The courts have made a only few exceptions:
- The condition cannot require a violation of the law. This principle has been used most frequently to prevent beneficiaries from having to uphold illegal racial restrictions in order to receive property. For instance, courts have overturned the proviso that donated parkland be available only to white people.
- The condition cannot run counter to "public policy." Courts vary in their interpretation of this principle but have generally used it to strike down requirements that prohibit marriage or encourage divorce. (Most commonly, a man will attempt to leave property to his wife as long as she never remarries.) It has also been used to repeal requirements that would cause family strife--for example, the provision that inherited land can only be used by one side of the family. And it has prevented beneficiaries from being required to change their religion or name.
- The condition cannot last forever. Courts consider it undesirable for someone to control property or land for hundreds of years after his death. So in most states, restrictions on private inheritances are limited to the lifetime of living beneficiaries plus 21 years (conditions on bequests to charities can often last longer). After this time, the property and decision rights must be transferred to an individual or group.