Of course, sometimes there are circumstances, such as a disabled child, that require equal shares to be thrown out the window. I counsel clients that, if all their children would agree that one child needs more, then unequal distribution should be considered.
Often, however, even when a parent intends to treat children equally, that doesn’t happen. The reason is lack of understanding about which assets pass under a will, and which assets pass outside a will.
Suppose a parent with three children leaves her personal property (“stuff”) and her residuary estate (everything else) in equal shares to her children. Toward the end of her life, however, she is debilitated and needs help paying bills. She takes her son to the bank with her to add his name to her bank account. The bank, instead of just adding son as a signatory on the bank account, makes the account payable to him on his mother’s death. Then son will get the bank account and one-third of all the other assets.
Take another example. Dad has three IRA accounts, each containing about $50,000. He makes each of his three children a beneficiary. Toward the end of his life, however, he has medical expenses that must be paid. Daughter who has the power of attorney and must come up with some money to pay bills, cashes in part of the IRA naming her as beneficiary (let’s make her generous). Although the will says that the residuary estate which includes stocks and bonds will be split equally, that’s not what happens. Her siblings each get and IRA and one-third of the estate. Her IRA is gone.
There is a simple drafting solution that can solve this dilemma and spare the feelings of your children. (It may even prevent litigation, which is a catastrophic waste of money and the end of sibling amity.) Consider asking your attorney to add language equalizing what your children will receive such as the following:
In apportioning the amount that is contained in my Residuary Estate, I direct that each of my children receive an equal amount by reason of my death and the death of my predeceased spouse, taking into account all items that pass to each child under my Will or that passed to each child under the Will of my predeceased spouse, by operation of law, by contract, beneficiary designation or otherwise.
In this way, your children will be treated equally taking into account items that pass under the will and those that do not. They will be treated equally taking into account both your estate and the estate of your spouse if he or she predeceases you.
One more bit of advice. Let your children know what you’ve done. Nothing calms the waters of sibling rivalry like their knowing in advance that everyone will be treated fairly.
 A special thanks to my friend, Ralph Levy, a great lawyer and the original source of this language.