Good estate planning must consider more than what you want to happen to your property and for your beneficiaries. It also must consider what you intentionally want to avoid happening.
In blended families in particular, intentional estate planning is imperative to ensuring that property passes to beneficiaries as planned, regardless of which spouse dies first.
Blended families generally can be categorized in one of two ways. First, the long-term blended family, may feel more like a nuclear biological family. In these families, both parents consider all of the children as their own, regardless of biological parenthood.
Most of the time, because of the length of the marriage, children were raised by both parents and stepparents, resulting in a natural familial relationship.
The second blended family is usually one in which the spouses married after their separate children were already adults. While adult children may love and respect their parent’s spouse, the spouse is seen as the parent’s spouse rather than as the child’s parent. This also may occur in long-term marriages in which the child was not raised with the stepparent.
The two types of blended families may have different estate planning goals.
For the long-term blended family, planning must be intentional, but there is less concern about whether the surviving spouse will change beneficiaries upon the death of the first spouse. However, planning still must include stepchildren, in whatever capacity they may be named.
The term “children” should be clearly defined in the last will and testament or Trust if that should include stepchildren.
For the second type of blended family, relationships between spouses and stepchildren may not be as close. Estate planning in these cases must consider the possibility that relationships between stepparents and stepchildren may deteriorate upon the natural parent’s death, especially if all property is left to the surviving spouse.
Even without ill intent, stepchildren may simply lose touch with a surviving step-parent, resulting in the surviving stepparent removing or decreasing that child’s remaining beneficial interest.
Amendable documents can be changed at any time, so long as the Testator has the mental capacity to make the change. The survivor may remarry, naming the new spouse as the beneficiary, or simply remove a child he has no ongoing relationship with. The survivor even unintentionally could cut out stepchildren by adding another person to a joint bank account, effectively creating a different set of beneficiaries.
Blended extended family also must be intentionally considered. Even for a couple who only has children in common, those children may have stepchildren. If the couple intends to include stepgrandchildren as potential beneficiaries, this must be defined clearly within the document.
The best way to ensure property will pass according to the wishes of both spouses is to be willing to have open, objective conversations about family dynamics.
Be realistic about concerns and the possibilities of future changes. If you are concerned about whether your children ultimately will receive property, consider leaving some property to children outright, even if your spouse survives. This often is accomplished by naming children as beneficiaries on retirement or investment accounts.
For jointly held property, consider using a Revocable Living Trust with provisions that would lock up a fractional share of the property upon the first spouse’s death. The property would still be able to be used for the support of the surviving spouse, but the surviving spouse could never change the beneficiaries on the decedent’s share of the trust.
When planning for blended families, consider both the current and possible future dynamics within the family. By crafting intentional planning, spouses can rest assured that property will pass in the way both determined during their life together.
Cynthia Griffin is an elder law and estate planning attorney at Burnett and Griffin PLLC in Elizabethtown. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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