Estate Planning When a Loved One Has Substance Abuse Issues

Nicholas Stratton
September 18, 2023

“Parenting is always difficult, and it’s even more challenging when a child has a mental health or substance use issue.” – Barry Lessin, M.Ed, Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor

Substance Use Problems Make Parenting Difficult at Any Age

Many parents of all ages struggle with children who face substance use problems.  Whether the problem runs in the family or seems to be new with this generation, it presents a set of challenges that can make parenting tough even as a child grows into adulthood or middle age. 

“Tough Love” Has Failed: Introducing Harm Reduction

Misinformation and bad advice abound when it comes to how to handle this situation.  Proponents of “tough love” suggest that families cut the child off from any kind of support, including emotional support, so they can hit “rock bottom.”  Unfortunately, “rock bottom” can often mean homelessness, incarceration, severe trauma and even death.  With new understanding that addiction is not a moral problem but a complex biological, psychological and social problem, approaches that aim to save the person’s life and minimize the harms of substance use have become more prominent because they are more effective.  These approaches are called harm reduction.

Under the old “tough love” model, parents were often urged to use any punishment or threat of punishment available to them to try and compel behavior change.  One of these is the threat of depriving a child of any inheritance if they refuse to comply with certain conditions, such as staying sober or going to residential treatment.  While it is understandable that parents can simply feel at the end of their rope as attempt after attempt to change the child’s behavior fails, this kind of approach is bound to fail.  It also has unexpected negative consequences, such as a loss of trust within the family.  We spoke with harm reduction psychologist Barry Lessin, M.Ed., CAADC, who has been in private practice for over thirty years working with families who struggle with substance use problems.

An Interview with Barry Lessin, M.Ed., Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor

Rehabs Are Not Effective Most of the Time

“There are several serious problems with attempting to coerce anyone into treatment,” said Lessin. He continued:

First, the one-size-fits-all model of the American treatment industry has failed.  Very few people find lasting recovery after one stay in residential rehab, or even after multiple, very costly stays.  The 12-Step model on which almost all rehabs are based is rooted in religion, not in science.  While it is effective for a small minority, it doesn’t work for most people in the long term. Rehab may have the advantage of getting a person away from drugs and alcohol for a period of time, and giving the family a break, but it’s not certain to prepare them for life in the real world where alcohol and other drugs are accessible at any time.  It often fails to address the underlying issues behind why someone may use drugs problematically.  People use drugs for reasons, many of which may not be known or understood by the family.  Unaddressed mental health problems, trauma and difficult life circumstances can all fuel addictive behaviors.

People Change When They Are Motivated to Change – Not When They Are Coerced

Second, when people are motivated to make change, they are more likely to be successful.  If they are mostly motivated by external factors like fear of punishment, they may go through the motions, but they are not likely to achieve lasting change.  They may agree to go to a residential treatment facility and even comply with the program, but without internal motivation, they are likely to fall back into old behaviors shortly after returning home.

Threats Destroy Relationships

The worst thing about using threats like disinheriting a child is that it can permanently destroy the relationship between parents and child.  It’s not about the money, it’s about love.  The distrust that is created can last a lifetime, even if the person agrees to go to treatment for thirty, sixty or ninety days.  When parents make their love conditional, a child loses trust.  Rarely in my practice have I ever seen that trust be rebuilt after a child of any age is coerced into treatment. 

Threats Can Rupture Other Family Relationships Too

Using the threat of disinheritance as a tool to attempt to compel treatment has ripple effects throughout the family as well.  Siblings may be put in an uncomfortable situation as their share of the estate may increase in the event that the substance-using child is disinherited.  Using money and property as leverage over one child raises suspicions among others, even if the action was not directed at them.  It can cause permanent ruptures in the bonds between the siblings who will survive even after the parents are gone.

There Are Better Approaches: Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT)

There are much better approaches to helping a person who is struggling with substance use.  Family therapists who use the evidence-based approach Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) find that it allows them to work from a harm reduction approach to help families develop communication skills and improve their well-being, increasing the likelihood of their loved one entering therapy. CRAFT can help to increase trust, and having a therapist that the person trusts is very important.

Making sure that the person can be safe, even if they are continuing to drink or use, can be the difference between life and death.  Punishment or threat of punishment rarely works for very long, if it works at all, and almost always damages the bonds between parent and child.

Difficult Family Situation?  We Understand

It’s important to find an estate planning attorney who understands that your family is unique, and who can work with you to make the best possible plans for your family’s situation.  We understand that difficult family dynamics, including problems with substance use, can make it harder to contemplate estate planning.  We are here for you with a non-judgmental, practical approach, no matter what.  We listen to each individual client and work with you to make estate plans that not only fit your family’s needs but evolve as your family’s needs change.  We look forward to working with you, no matter what challenges your family may face.


We are constantly on the lookout for resources and information that can help our clients. While online articles and blog posts are no substitute for legal advice and consultation, they are useful as a component of your due diligence and may help you consider questions or concerns you did not previously have. The blog posts and articles posted on our site are offered to help our clients, and potential clients, with that due diligence. The posts provided here are not legal advice. The laws of each state are not the same and what may be true in one place, may not be true in another. Furthermore, the nuances of each legal matter may make good advice to one-person, bad advice to another.

Please enjoy the articles on our site, please use them in your research, but please do not rely on them entirely.

If you have a legal matter that you may require assistance with, please contact our New Jersey office or call us at (201) 464-2040 and schedule a consultation to discuss your legal matters. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you.

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