Blended: Two Important Considerations for "Step" Family Estate Planning
Roughly a third to half of the families we work with are "blended," meaning some or all of the children - whether minors or adults - came into the new family with the spouses. Some families blend easily; others, not so much. Regardless, when it comes to estate planning, blended families have a few special considerations. If you are in a blended family, here are two things you need to discuss with your spouse and attorney.
Guardianship and the "step" relationship
When minor children are involved, you need to think about what happens if the biological parent dies. What type of relationship do you want to maintain with the step parent?
Do you want the step parent to serve as the primary guardian? This is only possible if:
There is no other surviving biological parent, OR
The other biological parent has formally given up their parental rights, OR
The step child is over 14 and states a preference for living with the step parent, and the court agrees that this is the child's best interest.
If the other biological parent is still in the picture, you need to be prepared for the reality that they are most likely going to be named the guardian. Meaning, the surviving step parent has no enforceable rights to continue being in the child's life, providing care, making decisions about medical care or education, etc.
This means it is crucial for you to have a grown-up conversation with the other biological parent ahead of time. If you want to maintain as much normalcy as possible in where the child lives, goes to school, goes to church, meets friends, and plays with siblings, then talk about that now. Come to an agreement with your ex-spouse or ex-partner about supporting ongoing relationships with step parents or step siblings.
For most blended families, the last they want is to add to the trauma a child is experiencing by making them lose an entire family in addition to losing a biological mom or dad.
INHERITANCE AND TAKING THE "STEP" OUT OF THE RELATIONSHIP
When you pass away and leave your assets to your children, does that include your step children? Most parents in a blended family have strong personal feelings about this question one way or another, but most have not expressed those feelings to their new partner.
Frequently in our counseling we address this question with our clients, and they are often surprised to learn that they feel very differently about the answer. One spouse may want to treat all children - biological, adopted, or step - the same, while the other feels that inheritance should be left only to biological children. There are often very good reasons for this, since step children will likely be inheriting assets from two families, rather than one. The point is not that treating children the same or differently is "right" or "wrong," but that it is a highly personal choice and must be a clear part of estate planning.
Without planning, the law will make no - zero, zilch, nada - distributions to a step child. If you wish to leave any portion of your assets to step children, this must be crystal clear in your planning and should be done in a way that is difficult for other family members to challenge.