In previous generations, the traditional nuclear family was the status quo. A married, heterosexual couple had 2-3 children, and those children grew up to have kids themselves. But divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation before marriage are now becoming increasingly common and accepted. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 1 in 6 American children live in a blended family. Although a vast portion of today’s Americans have stepfamily, the laws have not necessarily changed to reflect this pattern.
If you live in a blended family, you may need to take additional steps to ensure old laws don’t interfere with modern plans. Furthermore, the path of inheritance is not always clear in blended families. Complex relationships and interfamily dynamics may require difficult conversations and alternative prioritizations. Here are a few ideas and options to consider when planning for your blended family’s future.
8 Factors to Consider During Your Modern Estate Planning Process
To ensure your estate plan properly reflects the relationships and priorities you have within your blended family, take extra time to determine your goals and understand the nuances of each estate planning method, as well as the unique laws that govern your estate distribution.
Here are 8 estate planning factors to consider if you have a blended family:
- Importance of relationships. You may never have developed a relationship with your spouse’s children. Alternatively, you may be closer to your stepfamily than your own parents, siblings, or children. While all families have complicated relationships, the added dimensions of blended families can be difficult to navigate. The traditional family provides a clear, simple path for estate planning concerns, but in cases with multiple marriages, unmarried partners, and stepfamily, the quality of your relationships may take precedence over legal titles.
- Importance of bloodline. Relationships may, on the other hand, matter to you less than your bloodline. If you have a rich ancestry, pride in your family name, and/or a strong desire to secure the future of your children and grandchildren, you may be less inclined to prioritize those closest to you in favor of protecting a traditional path of inheritance.
- The needs of dependents. Determining which relationships you value most may take a backseat to the needs of the dependents in your life. While you may have a close personal relationship with your own child, for example, your spouse’s child or parent may be legally incapacitated due to a disability or old age. Your estate planning decisions may involve an assessment of who truly needs your support, rather than which relationship you cherish the most.
- Heirlooms and traditions. The value of your assets is not always monetary. Antiques or heirlooms passed down through the generations may carry a greater emotional weight, and your beneficiary could likely be someone you know will appreciate this significance and protect the tradition. In another instance, you may have possessions from a deceased spouse, and these items may be of great value to the spouse’s family members. While monetary assets will likely go to those in your life who need the resources, old family possessions may require a more nuanced assessment of potential heirs.
- Your executor or administrator. The person who manages your estate after your death has extensive responsibilities. Choosing an impartial, trustworthy executor can prevent added drama, accusations of favoritism, or unanticipated complications that may arise because of your blended family’s complex relationships.
- Unique state laws. Generally, stepchildren or step-grandchildren have no legal right to inherit your estate, unless you or your child adopted them. If you die without a will in Virginia, for example, your stepfamily will not inherit your estate even if you have no blood relatives. Before assuming how the state will distribute your assets, be sure you fully understand how inheritance laws may affect or influence your blended family’s future security.
- Methods of circumventing problematic laws. A will is the most well-known estate planning tool. You can name your stepfamily, unmarried partners, and friends as beneficiaries in your will, and this should effectively establish and protect their inheritance rights. You can also use a will to exclude certain blood relatives from inheriting your estate. However, a trust may be more effective if your beneficiaries need additional support or cannot handle the responsibilities of your estate. For example, you can set up a distribution plan or college fund, so a dependent does not need to make significant financial decisions on their own. Trusts offer additional measures of control and the ability to designate certain purposes of distribution.
- Alternative estate planning tools. A personal property memorandum, for example, is a detailed list of who will inherit each possession. Those in blended families often utilize this tool because it allows them to accommodate the unique relationships they have with blood relatives, stepfamily, and unmarried or “chosen” family. Not all states allow the use of this tool, however. Tennessee, for instance, does not recognize personal property memoranda. Lifetime gifts, life insurance policies, and retirement accounts are other methods of ensuring your final wishes are fulfilled in exactly the way you intend.
Contact Our Firm for the Counsel Your Blended Family Needs
Are you one of the millions of U.S. families with step-parents, -siblings, -children, or -grandchildren? At Legacy Law Centers, our legal team has years of experience navigating complex inheritance laws, drafting airtight estate planning documents, and protecting the families and legacies of our clients in Virginia. Our goal is to ensure your final wishes are properly respected and fulfilled.