Estate Planning for Blended Families

Picture of a family with two men, two women and two kids

Blended and non-traditional families are more common today than ever before. According to Pew Research, “family life is changing. Two-parent households are on the decline in the United States as divorce, remarriage and cohabitation are on the rise.” Blended families usually consist of 2nd or 3rd marriages and stepchildren, half-siblings, and/or children from a previous marriage. These non-traditional arrangements can make estate planning extremely significant and equally challenging. Too often, there is conflict between the children from the previous marriage and the new spouse. So how can you do estate planning that honors your wishes to provide for the people YOU choose while avoiding conflict?

What if I don’t do anything?

If you decide not to make an estate plan your state’s laws of intestacy will go into effect after you pass away. In other words, your money and property will be divided according to your state’s laws, and you won’t have a say. In New York, for example, a surviving spouse receives the first $50,000 of the estate and the balance is split one half to the spouse and the other half to the children. Of course, it gets more complex depending on your unique family structure.With no planning, it’s possible the people you intended to provide for can be left out. Your family will most likely end up in court sorting it all out which is extremely stressful, expensive, time-consuming and ultimately the decision will be left up to a judge.

What is the best strategy for blended families?

There are many scenarios to consider when estate planning for blended families. In cases where your children from a prior marriage are minors, an ex-spouse might be able to gain control of your money and assets. This is because your ex-spouse can be appointed guardian of your children’s inheritance. Therefore, each spouse in a blended family should at least have a will appointing a guardian for your children’s inheritance.

Trusts can provide for your current spouse while ensuring a portion of the assets goes to your

children from a previous marriage. Trusts are often the mechanism used to make sure that the children of each spouse are treated fairly.  One strategy is to leave some (or all) of your assets in a trust that will take care of your spouse during his or her life.  Then when your spouse passes away, the trust controls who receives the remaining inheritance.  In other words, you can make sure that your children will benefit at your spouse's death.  Furthermore, if your spouse remarries, the trust can contain language that will protect the assets from passing to a new spouse and their children. An accurately planned and sufficiently funded trust, or a combination of trusts, is a much better strategy than a will for blended families.

People often have good intentions but even in agreeable blended families failure to create and implement an estate plan may lead to unforeseen problems. Consult with an experienced and skilled estate planning attorney to help you ensure your plans to provide for your blended

family are met and avoid unintentional conflict.