How Do You Split an Estate in a Blended Family?

Estate planning attorneys know just how often blended families with the best of intentions find themselves embroiled in disputes, when the couple fails to address what will happen after the first spouse dies. According to the article “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues” from The News-Enterprise, this is more likely to occur when spouses marry after their separate children are already adults, don’t live in the parent’s home and have their own lives and families.

In this case, the spouse is seen as the parent’s spouse, rather than the child’s parent. There may be love and respect. However, it’s a different relationship from long-term blended families where the stepparent was actively engaged with all of the children’s upbringing and parents consider all of the children as their own.

For the long-term blended family, the planning must be intentional. However, there may be less concern about the surviving spouse changing beneficiaries and depriving the other spouse’s children of their inheritance. The estate planning attorney must still address this as a possibility.

When relationships between spouses and stepchildren are not as close, or are rocky, estate planning must proceed as if the relationship between stepparents and stepsiblings will evaporate on the death of the natural parent. If one spouse’s intention is to leave all of their wealth to the surviving spouse, the plan must anticipate trouble, even litigation.

In some families, there is no intent to deprive anyone of an inheritance. However, failing to plan appropriately—having a will, setting up trusts, etc.—is not done and the estate plan disinherits children.

It’s important for the will, trusts and any other estate planning documents to define the term “children” and in some cases, use the specific names of the children. This is especially important when there are other family members with the same or similar names.

As long as the parents are well and healthy, estate plans can be amended. If one of the parents becomes incapacitated, changes cannot be legally made to their wills. If one spouse dies and the survivor remarries and names a new spouse as their beneficiary, it’s possible for all of the children to lose their inheritances.

Most people don’t intend to disinherit their own children or their stepchildren. However, this occurs often when the spouses neglect to revise their estate plan when they marry again, or if there is no estate plan at all. An estate planning attorney has seen many different versions of this and can create a plan to achieve your wishes and protect your children.

A final note: be realistic about what may occur when you pass. While your spouse may fully intend to maintain relationships with your children, lives and relationships change. With an intentional estate plan, parents can take comfort in knowing their property will be passed to the next generation—or two—as they wish.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Dec. 7, 2021) “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues”

How Can Blended Families Use Estate Planning to Protect All of the Siblings?

If two adult children in a blended family receive a lot more financial help from their parent and stepparents than other children, there may be expectations that the parent’s estate plan will be structured to address any unequal distributions. This unique circumstance requires a unique solution, as explained in the article “Estate Planning: A Trust Can Be Used to Protect Blended Families” from The Daily Sentinel. Blended families in which adult children and stepchildren have grandchildren also require unique estate planning.

Blended families face the question of what happens if one parent dies and the surviving step parent remarries. If the deceased spouse’s estate was given to the surviving step parent, will those assets be used to benefit the deceased spouse’s children, or will the new spouse and their children be the sole beneficiaries?

In a perfect world, all children would be treated equally, and assets would flow to the right heirs.  However, that does not always happen. There are many cases where the best of intentions is clear to all, but the death of the first spouse in a blended marriage change everything.

Other events occur that change how the deceased’s estate is distributed. If the surviving step-spouse suffers from Alzheimer’s or experiences another serious disease, their judgement may become impaired.

All of these are risks that can be avoided, if proper estate planning is done by both parents while they are still well and living. Chief among these is a trust,  a simple will does not provide the level of control of assets needed in this situation. Don’t leave this to chance—there’s no way to know how things will work out.

A trust can be created, so the spouse will have access to assets while they are living. When they pass, the remainder of the trust can be distributed to the children.

If a family that has helped out two children more than others, as mentioned above, the relationships between the siblings that took time to establish need to be addressed, while the parents are still living. This can be done with a gifting strategy, where children who felt their needs were being overlooked may receive gifts of any size that might be appropriate, to stem any feelings of resentment.

That is not to say that parents need to use their estate to satisfy their children’s expectations. However, in the case of the family above, it is a reasonable solution for that particular family and their dynamics.

A good estate plan addresses the parent’s needs and takes the children’s needs into consideration. Every parent needs to address their children’s unique needs and be able to distinguish their needs from wants. A gifting strategy, trusts and other estate planning tools can be explored in a consultation with an experienced estate planning attorney, who creates estate plans specific to the unique needs of each family.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 16, 2020) “Estate Planning: A Trust Can Be Used to Protect Blended Families”