Blended families were once considered “non-traditional” families, but today, blended families are becoming just as common as non-blended families. Currently, 52% of married couples (or unmarried couples who live together) have a step-kin relationship of some kind, and 4 in 10 new marriages involve remarriage.
If you're part of a blended family, you've probably recognized the extra layer of complexity that comes with planning for your family's needs and accommodating the many relationships that exist between step-parents, step-kids, and step-siblings. Topics that might be straightforward for a “traditional” family - such as where to spend the holidays or who gets the old family car - are more complex.
Feelings tend to be more sensitive, as the person in a “step” role may feel self-conscious about their place as the “outsider” of the family, whereas on the other hand, one parent's children may feel put out by the addition of a new step-parent, step-sibling, or half-sibling when their mother or father remarries.
In a blended family, you work hard to navigate these complexities to keep the family unified and happy. But what you might not know is that our laws for what happens if you become incapacitated or die are still very much based on the traditional family model, which means that your blended family will likely end up in court and conflict without planning for them in advance.
What Estate Law Says About Blended Families
Every state has different provisions for what happens when you become incapacitated or die, and the laws of the state where you become incapacitated or die may or may not match your wishes. What's more, even though you may see your step-family members the same way as your blood relatives, the law does not.
For example, in Colorado, if you are survived by a spouse, your surviving spouse would only receive a part of your estate if you have living children (or parents!), and your living children or parents would receive the rest. And the amount your spouse receives is variable based on the number and ages of your children.
In contrast, in California, all community property assets would go to your surviving spouse, and separate property assets would be distributed partially to a surviving spouse and partially to children, if living, in amounts depending on the number of surviving children.
In Texas, it can get very complex, depending on whether your assets are separate or community, and whether you have children from the marriage, no children from the marriage or living parents or siblings.
And here in Wisconsin, a community property state, if you have children who are not also children of your spouse, those children get one half of any separate (non-marital) property that is not owned a certain way with your spouse. A court needs to classify the property first, and it may not be distributed the way you think it will. It can get confusing.
As you can see, what's true for what happens when you die may not result in the outcome you want for your loved ones, especially in a blended family situation. That's why it's so important to create an estate plan for your blended family well in advance, and I encourage you to discuss your plan with the members of your family to avoid hurt feelings, confusion, or pain in the future.
Avoid Conflict in Your Blended Family Through Open Communication
Estate planning is often seen as a highly private affair, but it doesn't have to be, and oftentimes, shouldn't be. In the case of a blended family, having open conversations with your loved ones about your estate plan and your goals for the family can save them from hurt feelings and even court battles in the future.
Like all families, how you plan for your blended family will depend entirely on your family dynamics, your family members' situations, and your own personal values for how an inheritance should (or shouldn't) be received and what kind of legacy you want to leave behind.
Maybe you have step-kids and biological kids but want all of your children to inherit an equal share from you and your spouse. Maybe there's a large age gap between your step-kids and biological child, so you want to make sure that your youngest has the financial support they'll need if something happens to you whereas the older children are able to support themselves.
Maybe you have a step-parent or step-sibling that you would want to gift a special item of yours like a watch or necklace. Well, for better or worse, a person you have a step-relationship with has no right to inherit from you under the law, unless you put your plan in writing.
You don't need to give away every detail of your Will or Trust, or tell everyone who you named to make decisions for you if you're incapacitated. Instead, start by having an open conversation about the general goal of your estate plan, such as wanting everyone to have an equal share, or that you want to provide more for your biological children because your step-children will already receive a full inheritance from their other parent.
By taking the mystery out of your estate plan goals, your stepchildren will feel included in the discussion and feel like they are knowledgeable about your plan rather than feeling hoodwinked or hurt if they find out later that your plan doesn't align with the expectations they created for it in their minds.
Most importantly, let the people in your life know you value and love them, and that no matter how they're related to you, you care about them and want them to inherit not just material things from you, but also your values, stories, and legacy.
Create More Than a Plan, Create a Family Legacy
To make sure your wishes for your blended family are followed in the event of your death or incapacity, it's essential to have a well-crafted estate plan created by an attorney experienced in serving blended families. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, I know all too well the importance of planning for blended families and can help you navigate your options and desires for your family's plan.
But what really sets me apart from the transactional model of estate planning is that I know that your material possessions are only a small part of a successful estate plan. What will really matter to your family members, no matter how they became your family, is your legacy.
Instead of leaving your family a mess to be battled over in court, leave your family an example of financial wellness, of a plan filled with personal values and family history.
To do this, I include what I like to call a Family Legacy Interview with all of my estate plans. During this interview, I give you the opportunity to leave your most important assets - your values, stories, and heart - to your family in a meaningful way that they'll cherish for years after you're gone.
And for a blended family, the Family Legacy Interview can be even more valuable, because it gives you the opportunity to really speak to your loved ones about the plan you created for them and how much you value the place they hold in your heart.
If you want to protect your blended family from a court battle and emotional conflict, give me a call today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™. During the Session, I take the time to really get to know you and your family's unique situation and educate you about what exactly will happen to your family under the law if something happened to you right now, so you can make confident decisions about what's right for your family. Even more, I welcome you to invite the members of your blended family to be a part of the conversation.
Click this link to schedule your session today: CLICK HERE TO SCHEDULE.
This article is a service of Melinda Hoey, a Personal Family Lawyer® Firm. We don't just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you've ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session.
The content is sourced from Personal Family Lawyer® for use by Personal Family Lawyer® firms, a source believed to be providing accurate information. This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA, tax, legal, or investment advice. If you are seeking legal advice specific to your needs, such advice services must be obtained on your own separate from this educational material.