Who can forget the Brady Bunch television show that shared the joys and challenges of blended families? Mike and Carol Brady were the quintessential blended family. Each spouse bringing 3 children into the marriage and raising them as one big happy family. My wife and I are also living the same reality. She has 3 boys, I have 2 boys and we both brought two beautiful little girls into our own little live TV show. But I can’t help but wonder what their estate planning looked like. Did Mike leave everything to Carol outright on his death, knowing that she would treat all 6 children equally and not favor her 3 girls over his 3 boys?
We would like to think that Carol would “do the right thing,” but what if she didn’t? What if she never liked Mike’s boys and decided to leave everything to Marcia, Jan and Cindy? That groovy 60s style home and the fruits of father’s career in architecture would pass only to her children, while omitting Mike’s biological children. It happens a lot. The surviving spouse disinherits her stepchildren. Sometimes it is intentional and deceptive from the start. Carol never really liked those boys. Any affection for them was an act, put on for Mike’s benefit. She always knew she would cut them out if given the opportunity.
In other circumstances, it happens slowly over time. As the years pass after Mike’s death, Carol and the boys grow apart. When it comes time to update her estate plan, she just leaves them out. She hasn’t seen them much anyway. There are no bad feelings or ill will. It just happens.
Apart from the day-to-day challenges, blended face additional hurdles when addressing their estate planning. It is estimated that more than half of U.S. families are remarried or re-coupled. If you are in this category and raising a blended family like I am, here are six pointers for protecting your family and your assets.
1) A simple will probably won’t cut it. It opens the possibility that your biological children could be cut out of your spouse’s estate down the road. If you want to create an “I love you” will leaving everything to your spouse, be aware that after you are gone, he or she could cut out your children and leave all your assets to their children, a new spouse or anyone they wants. Your spouse has no obligation to your children.
2) Consider a trust that leaves assets to your spouse for their lifetime, with the balance passing to your children on their death. This ensures that your spouse has access to the funds during their lifetime and that the assets rightly go to your children when they are gone.
3) Choose a sophisticated and experienced trustee. Who will make the financial decisions about investing the assets and distributing them to your spouse after you are gone? There could be tension between what your spouse wants and what your kids want to give them. Who will act as the referee between them?
4) Plan for the possibility that your surviving spouse will remarry. A trust can ensure that the assets are protected in the event your spouse remarries.
5) Consider leaving some assets to your biological children on your death. That way, they will not be sitting around waiting for their stepmother or stepfather to kick the so-called bucket.
6) Decide who will make health care decisions. This is a big question. Most states only allow you to name one person to make health care decisions, but in Texas you can have multiple people and they can work jointly. Will that be your surviving spouse or your son or daughter or all of the above? If you do not have a plan in place, this can lead to a lot confusion and fighting between them. It is not uncommon for stepparents to cut off access and information to their spouse’s children when the spouse has been hospitalized. The reverse happens as well. Will your children prevent your spouse from visiting you? Give this topic a lot of consideration.
Many clients like to think of their families as a modern version of the Brady Bunch. But when you are gone and time has passed, will your spouse still treat your children as her own? Let’s hope they do, but plan for the fact that it sometimes does not turn out like the TV show happy ending.