Will with restrictive conditions - can they be enforced?

First off, I don’t need answer fast - our wills are done, and they’re simple and straightforward. Rather, this is the result of some weird musings the I doubt will ever apply to me.

Legally, could certain restrictions even be included in a will? For example, a person would inherit a house, but they can never sell it to someone of < whatever> ethnicity. Or heir gets big pile o’money, but only on the condition of regular attendance at < church> for the rest of his life. Or heir gets great-grandmother’s jewelry but must never pass it to anyone outside the family.

What happens if the first person sells the house to someone who intends to sell it to the member of < whatever> ethnicity? Or the second person quits going to church after a year or two? Or the third person decided to sell/donate the jewels ten years down the line?

I guess what I’m asking - are restrictions legal and if so, how long are they binding? I’ve never heard of such things outside of sitcom plots but I’m assuming they do exist.

Go to law school and you’ll hear about all kinds of strange hypotheticals like these. Unfortunately, 35 years later, you’ll forget the answer.

The restrictions on selling the house would run afoul of The Fair Housing Act.

I don’t think these hypotheticals are possible because there is nobody to enforce them. I can’t see the police wasting their time enforcing them, assuming they were ever asked to.

As noted above, there are laws in the US to protect someone from housing discrimination that would override any will.

Well, it could be enforeced by the person who would get the property if the term was valid

For example, “I leave my house to my son Roger, but if Roger ever marries, the house shall go to his sister Beth.” Beth, in that case, might very well have an incentive to run to court for an order transferring ownership if Roger marries. My weak recollection is that you can set terms for conditions that may be in place at the time of your death, but not thereafter. In other words, if Roger was married when you died, it would go straight to Beth, but if it goes to Roger first since he’s unmarried, it is his free and clear of conditions.

Then a judge would have to decide if it’s enforceable. I can’t see making someone stay single or else lose a house as being enforceable, but I’m not a judge.

Here’s an article that states:

Generally, courts use public policy grounds to invalidate provisions that encourage immoral or harmful acts, or acts that can hurt society in general. For example, courts have refused to enforce conditions requiring a beneficiary to get a divorce. But restrictions on marriage—requiring that a beneficiary wait until a certain age or choose someone from a certain religion—are often upheld.

If you want some ongoing behavior, then the way such a thing would have to be structured is “heir gets regular payments from a trust as long as they do X” because there’s no mechanism for the deceased to revoke the money if the heir stops doing X.

Those are often valid, although probably could be voided if X were illegal or otherwise strongly opposed to public policy. Going to church is neither.

For religious practice, probably valid. Shapira v. Union Nat’l Bank was a case where the will paid out only to heirs who married into a particular religion, and it was upheld.

Trusts can’t last forever, so at some point there has to be a thing that causes all the money to go to someone without condition. You can’t make umpteen generations go to church. But you generally can make it last as long as any specific person alive at the time the trust is created is alive (and then a bit).

For a real world example, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will originally required that the museum she endowed in her house must remain unchanged, or else the entire art collection, house, and land would go to Harvard. In 2009 the MA Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a proposed expansion did not violate the terms of the will:

Now, in a victory the Gardner had been awaiting for months, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled on March 4 that the museum can depart from the strict parameters of Gardner’s prickly will. It called the expansion a “reasonable deviation” from the will because it is in the public interest to protect the building from overuse.

According to the will if the arrangement of any of the museum’s holdings changes, the entire collection, the building and the land beneath it must be turned over to Harvard.

I think they’re as binding and last as long as you can make them hold up in court.

I’d imagine that without specific testing conditions (i.e. “inheritor has to submit the program from the church service at X church to the law firm of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe by every Tuesday at 3 pm, or forfeit the inheritance”), it would come back to a lawsuit to prove that the person didn’t conform.

Not sure how this would hold up today, but Henry Campbell, a future British prime minister (1905-08) was obliged to change his name by the terms of a will so that he could inherit the estate of an uncle, Henry Bannerman, and thus became Henry Campbell-Bannerman, a name he disliked.

There is a common vehicle that essentially does this called a “Lifetime Estate”, in some states it is actually called (the more old-fashioned term) a “Life Dowry.”

Such a legal agreement essentially gives a person a lifetime tenancy to a property, that cannot ordinarily be terminated. However, it generally deeds ownership rights to another person, who takes possession of the home once the lifetime estate has ended. It is not uncommon for the lifetime estate to be defined as ending if the person inhabiting it marries, or stops using the home as a primary residence.

Why is this? Essentially these are commonly used in a “second spouse” situation. Someone has real estate and children with a first spouse, who has divorced or deceased, and then later marries a second spouse. This person wants this real estate to exclusively go to their biological children from the first marriage, but doesn’t want to see their spouse turned out if they predecease them. The conditions on primary residency and/or remarriage are fairly common because they are linked to protecting the interests of the intended recipients of the property (the biological children), assumptions are often made a spouse that remarries or stops using the home as a primary residency doesn’t really “need” the life estate any longer.

Obviously in this situation the surviving spouse has no special legal claim to the real estate, commonly because it was fully owned by the deceased spouse as pre-marital assets.

My family had a situation exactly like this. My aunt began cohabiting with a man who was around 72-73 when she was 55. After a few years, he proposed marriage–but she declined, she’d been twice married and was done with the institution. As he got older, he told her that while he was fine not being married, if she wasn’t his wife, it was his preference that his home (that had been in his family for over 100 years) go to his three adult children from his first marriage. He gave her a lifetime estate in the home, but ownership goes to his children. He passed away and this went into effect, and my aunt (who is quite elderly now) still lives in this home decades later–some of his adult children were displeased with the situation and sought options to have her evicted, but they did not prevail.

The testator can put conditions in the will that dictate whether and how assets are transferred to heirs; however, it is essentially up to the executor to evaluate and enforce these conditions. A court challenge by another heir or interested party during probate could result in the court getting involved but unless there are some specific legal issues the court has to adjudicate it will generally defer to the executor on disposition of assets. Once assets are transferred to the heir, the court and executor really have no say about their further disposition; there is no mechanism to dictate how an asset can be used or to whom it can be sold other than provisions within any kind of incorporation or charter in the case of property held in joint ownership. An estate certainly can’t take back assets once they have been distributed except from a challenge to the court as to the correct interpretation of the will.

If you wanted to control the use of property or dispensation of money, the way to do this would be to create an irrevocable trust which holds the property and dispenses monies in accordance with the stated wishes of the grantor (the person who created the trust) and per the interpretation of the trustee who manages the trust. (A revocable ‘living’ trust becomes an irrevocable trust upon the death of the grantor.) A trust is essentially under the control of the designated trustee which means that they can actually follow the wishes of the grantor or not as they see fit within the bounds of the law. In theory a trustee could be sued for not following the stated wishes of the grantor but a trustee has broad authority over the trust so unless it can be demonstrated that they are embezzling or taking some other criminal act a court generally can’t force the trustee to do anything or remove them from the trusteeship. You could create a private foundation to manage the trust with stated restrictions in its articles of incorporation but due ot the overhead costs this would only make sense if this were an estate of many millions of dollars.

Most of the provisions you see in wills in movies like Brewster’s Millions intended to create a premise for comedy are pure nonsense; they’re either not enforceable or against public policy, and would not stand up to any legal challenge. Most legitimate contingent provisions in wills are generally in the form of Asset X goes to Heir Y or their surviving issue, or else to Non-Profit Z if there are no named heirs. Anything that requires demonstrating some kind of condition beyond proof of identity is unlikely to be enforced even if it is not illegal.


I know in the case of one of my brothers-in-law, he has a tendency to blow thru money at hand. His mother put his share of the estate into a trust to pay out to him periodically, in effect, forcing him to be somewhat fiscally responsible. Since his wife also tends to spend whatever she has at the time, this was a pretty smart way of keeping him (them) from becoming destitute. Maturity in age does not necessarily translate to maturity in actions and choices.

It seems that a life estate can be granted for personal property in at least some states/situations* so it might be possible to leave your daughter-in-law the right to use your jewelry while she is alive and married to your child but leave the actual jewelry to your grandchild.

* I suspect that this is most often used in the case of cooperative apartments, where you don’t actually own the apartment but instead own shares in the corporation that owns the building that come along with a lease to occupy a specific apartment. Sine you don’t actually own the apartment, it’s not real property.

Something very similar is done for children in trusts. Our trust had limited payouts to our kids (not counting education) until they reached a certain age. Not because we didn’t trust them, but just for safety.
They are both well past the final age now.

A few years ago, I asked a similar question:

The winner of the thread was The Great Stork Derby.

In the mid-19th century, Stephen Girard left enough money to endow a free school called Girard College for “Poor white male orphans”. This lasted maybe a 100 years when it was overturned (on the grounds that it was based on no taxes). Now there are black and white boys and girls.

Then there was the Barnes Foundation, but I don’t know enough of the details to comment further. Suffice it to say that Barnes’s will was eventually overturned and it is now an art museum open to the public, contradicting the will.

When my mom died my 2 sibs and I just split everything up. Rather than splitting $20,000 three ways and paying tax on it, my lil brother suggested a college fund for my sister’s granddaughter. We all agreed.

My brother created a trust set up where she gets the $$ only if she graduates high school by a certain date and enrolls in some sort of education. We get yearly updates and the trust is worth way more than $20k now.

As it turns out, the little girl got my genes when it comes to intellect and the future is looking bright. Then again, if she defaults and I’m still breathing, I’ll be getting a nice nest egg

I am not a lawyer but I believe the answer

  • depends on the specific restriction
  • and there are 51 different answers with Louisiana being the “weird” one