Blended families face unique estate planning challenges. In a blended family one or both spouses have children from prior marriages or relationships. They may also have children together from the current marriage. In the United States, about half of all marriages create blended families.

A common estate plan for spouses in a first marriage is to leave their entire estates to each other. The assumption is that the surviving spouse will use the assets for the support of the family and then leave his or her estate to the couple’s does not work for the blended family. If the spouses leave their estates outright to each other, the surviving spouse is free to pass the inherited assets to whomever he or she pleases. The children of the first spouse to die can end up with nothing. Alternatively, a spouse may prefer to leave his or her estate to his or her children from a prior relationship, especially if the spouse does not need support. However, state laws make it difficult to disinherit a spouse. How can this potential for conflict between the surviving spouse and the children of the deceased spouse be minimized?

Here are some tips to consider:

Begin with Open Communication and Full Disclosure

The best time to discuss an estate plan for your blended family is before you marry into it. Putting all your cards on the table before marriage will allow you to resolve what could later be a source of significant strife in your blended family. If you and your intended are not on the same page, you may even decide to delay or forgo marriage. Reaching an understanding before marriage will also enable you to enter into a premarital agreement that can help prevent disputes between your spouse and children after your death.

If you are already in a blended family, it’s not too late for an estate planning conversation, but you’ll want to have it soon. If your children or stepchildren are adults, depending on the family dynamic, you make want to include them in your discussions or inform them later about your estate planning decisions.

First spend some time by yourself. Think through your estate planning goals. Do you want most of your estate to go to your spouse for his or her support then ultimately to your children? Is your estate large enough to leave an immediate inheritance to your children with the rest to your spouse? Do you want your spouse’s children to share in your estate? Does your spouse have sufficient assets to not need an inheritance from you?

Make a list of all your property. Be sure to include any valuable personal property and family heirlooms you want to stay with your children. You’ll want to make sure these specific gifts are spelled out in your estate planning documents. Then share your estate planning goals and property lists with your spouse. How do you feel about your spouse’s goals and how does your spouse feel about yours? If your spouse understands and agrees with your plan, he is she is less likely to look for ways to challenge it should you be the first to die.

Make an appointment with an estate planning attorney who has experience preparing plans for blended families. He or she can help you review your options, determine the best estate planning devices for achieving your goals, and prepare the necessary paperwork.

Doing Nothing Is Not an Option

For any family, choosing to avoid estate planning is the worst decision. No one enjoys thinking about their own mortality. But it’s important that you do so your family can quickly and efficiently handle your assets after you’re gone. Deciding not to create an estate plan is choosing to let the state do it for you. Under state law, your spouse will be entitled a significant chunk of your estate (one-third or one half in many states) with the rest going to your children in equal shares. 

Family members will be left to decide (or more likely squabble) among themselves over who gets heirlooms and keepsakes. Be proactive now so your family doesn’t have to worry about it later.

If this information has left you with more questions on your specific situation, give me a call. I would be happy to visit with you and provide more clarification for your particular situation. Until next time!

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