How Estate Planning Keeps the Peace for Blended Families

With the IRS’s announcement that the first $11.58 million (in 2020) of a taxable estate is free from estate taxes, most people won’t have to worry about paying estate taxes. Therefore, what’s the biggest reason to have an estate plan?

Earlier this year, a survey was conducted at the 53rd annual Heckerling Institute of Estate Planning, a prestigious legal and financial conference that attracts leaders in the field of estate planning. For the second year in a row, family conflict was identified as the biggest threat to estate planning, reports Investment News in the article Reducing potential family conflicts.”

Statistics show that there are more blended families in the U.S. than ever before.

The increase in blended families has led to an increase in family conflicts. While open and honest communication is the key to any kind of conflict resolution, it’s particularly sticky when it comes to blended families. For most families, it’s a good idea to talk openly about estate plans, rather than waiting until one of the spouses has passed and explaining to the biological and stepchildren how the assets are being distributed. Discussing the estate plan before anyone dies, at the very least gives everyone a chance to voice their opinions, even if no changes to the spouse’s plans are made.

How do you minimize conflicts within blended families? One way is with a prenuptial agreement, which is executed before marriage and clarifies the financial rights of each spouse, in the event of divorce or death. This is especially useful, when there is a disparity in wealth or age between the couple.

However, not everyone is willing to have a prenup. And even if they do, family conflicts can still crop up. Let’s say Gary and Helen are married, each with children from a previous marriage. Gary wants to give his entire estate to Helen when he dies. If Gary dies first, there’s no legal reason for Helen to give any of Gary’s assets to his biological children.

There are any number of solutions. If Gary really wants to cut his children out of his will, he can talk with them and explain his thinking. He can also have an estate planning attorney include a “no contest” clause in his will. If any named beneficiary challenges the will, they will lose any inheritance and are treated legally, as if they have predeceased the decedent. Gary could also use a revocable living trust, which would avoid the estate being probated and deny the children an opportunity to challenge his will.

A better solution would be to craft an estate plan that benefits both Gary and Helen’s children. Harry’s children could receive a partial outright distribution when Gary dies, with the remaining estate passing to Helen. A trust could be created for Helen’s benefit, but the remaining trust assets could go to Gary’s children when Helen dies.

There are many different ways to resolve this issue with an eye to minimizing conflict among children in blended families. If the parents are truly invested in keeping their children together as a family, it is worth the effort to create an estate plan that cares for the spouses and all of the children. An estate planning attorney can create a plan to accomplish your goals for the entire blended family.

Reference: Investment News (December 9, 2019) Reducing potential family conflicts

How Do I Reduce My Blended Family Fighting Concerning My Estate Plan?

The IRS recently announced that in 2020, the first $11.58 million of a taxable estate is free from federal estate taxes. Therefore, a vast majority of estates won’t have to pay federal estate taxes. However, a TD Wealth survey at the 53rd Annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning found that family conflict was identified as the leading threat to estate planning.

Investment News’ recent article, “Reducing potential family conflicts,” explains that a blended family can result from multiple marriages, children from a current or former marriage, or children involved in multiple marriages. There are more “blended families” in the U.S. than ever before. More fighting over estate planning occurs in blended families.

The key element in any conflict resolution is open and honest communication. It’s especially the case, when it involves a blended family. In many instances, it’s best to explain a proposed estate plan to the family in advance.

If anyone objects, listen to their point of view and try to be empathetic to their position. You may wind up with a compromise, or, if no changes are made, at least the family member had an opportunity to air their grievances.

One potential solution to minimize conflicts within a blended family may be a prenuptial agreement. The agreement is signed prior to the marriage and outlines the financial rights of each spouse, in the event of a divorce or death. Prenups are particularly useful in second marriages, especially when there is a disparity in age and wealth between the parties.

However, not every married couple in a blended family has a prenuptial agreement. Even if they do, blended families can still have family conflicts in estate planning.

It is important to remember communication, reducing the chances of a will contest with a “no-contest” clause, asking your attorney about a revocable living trust and compromise.

Estate planning can be particularly difficult for blended families. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about the techniques that can help reduce potential family conflicts.

Reference: Investment News (December 9, 2019) “Reducing potential family conflicts”

Blended Families Need More Thoughtful Estate Plans

Estate planning for blended families is like playing chess in three dimensions: even those who are very good at chess can struggle with so many moving parts in so many dimensions. Preparing an estate plan requires careful consideration of family dynamics, and those are multiplied in blended families. This is another reason why estate plans need to be tailored for each family’s circumstances, as described in the article “Blended families have unique considerations in estate planning” from The News Enterprise.

The last will and testament is often considered the key document in an estate plan. But while the will is very important, it has certain limitations and a few commonly used estate planning strategies can result in unpleasant endings, if this is the only document used.

Spouses often leave everything to each other as the primary beneficiary on death, with all of their children as contingent beneficiaries. This is based on the assumption that the second spouse will remain in the family home, then will distribute any proceeds equally between the children, if and when they move or die. However, the will can be changed at any time before death, as long as the person making the will has mental capacity. If when the first spouse dies, the relationship with the surviving children is not strong, it is possible that the surviving spouse may have their will changed.

If stepchildren don’t have a strong connection with the surviving spouse, which occurs frequently when the second marriage occurs after the children are adults, things can go wrong. Their mutual grief at the passing of the first spouse does not always draw stepchildren and stepparents together. Often, it divides them.

The couple may also select different successor beneficiaries. The husband may name his wife first, then only his children in his will, while the wife may name her husband and then her children in her will. This creates a “survival race.” The surviving spouse receives the property and the children of the spouse who passed won’t know when or if they will receive any assets.

Some couples plan on using trusts for property distribution upon death. This can be more successful, if planned properly. It can also be just as bad as a will.

Trust provisions can be categorized according to the level of control the surviving spouse has after the death of the first spouse. A trust can be structured to lock down half of the trust assets on the death of the first spouse. The surviving spouse remains as a beneficiary but does not have the ability to change the ultimate distribution of the decedent’s portion. This allows the survivor the financial support they need, giving flexibility for the survivor to change their beneficiaries for their remaining share.

Not all blended families actually “blend,” but for those who do, a candid discussion with all, possibly in the office of the estate planning attorney, to plan for the future, is one way to ensure that the family remains a family, when both parents are gone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (November 4, 2019) “Blended families have unique considerations in estate planning”

Suggested Key Terms: