What Blended Families Should Know About Wills

Wed May 31, 2023 | Estate Planning |

Despite the fact that blended families are quite common, they still pose unique challenges when it comes to estate planning. If you or your spouse have children from a prior relationship, you may want to give some consideration to what will happen after you pass away. Whether you are recently remarried or simply haven’t looked at your estate plan in a while, a knowledgeable estate planning attorney can help you make sure that your loved ones are protected. 

The Main Worry: Unequal Treatment or Disinheritance 

For traditional families, wills would be commonly structured in this way: 

  • If one spouse dies, all assets would be inherited by the surviving spouse; 
  • If both spouses die at the same time, all estate assets would be inherited by the surviving children.

While it is possible for both spouses to die at the same time (such as in a car accident), it is far more common for one spouse to die before the other. This structure is built upon the assumption that the surviving spouse will ensure that the couple’s children will inherit any remaining assets when they die. 

With blended families, the question arises as to whether this assumption is reasonable. The fear is that the surviving spouse may choose to not treat the children from a prior relationship in the same way as their own. An example may help illustrate the potential issue: 

  • David and Sharon get married. David has two children from a previous marriage, Andrew and Benjamin. David and Sharon have two children together, Catherine and Frances.
  • David and Sharon’s will directs that all assets will be inherited by the surviving spouse. David predeceases Sharon, who inherits everything. 
  • Decades later, Sharon becomes ill and decides to update her will. For whatever reason, she decides to restructure her will in a way that significantly favors Catherine and Frances over Andrew and Benjamin. 

No matter how unfair this outcome may seem, Sharon has done nothing wrong or illegal. The estate is hers to dispose of however she wishes, and she could even choose to completely disinherit David’s children. What could David have done to protect his children from his prior marriage?

Blended Family Estate Planning Requires Good Communication

This is one of the instances where estate planning becomes very personal. Spouses in blended families should have a candid conversation about how they expect their children to be taken care of upon their death. And of course, each spouse should trust the other to honor their wishes. That said, relationships change over time, including the relationship that each spouse has with their children. Significant assets may be acquired or there may be life events that lead to depletion of the estate or one or more family members with greater needs than the others. It can be difficult to consider all of the potential outcomes, especially when you do not know all of the options available to you. 

It is also a topic that can be quite delicate. Suggesting that you should consider an alternative to your spouse inheriting the entire estate can sound divisive. An experienced estate planning attorney can walk you through your options as well as provide guidance as to why both spouses may want to consider their alternatives.

Dividing the Estate

One option to consider is dividing the estate. In this scenario, a portion of the estate would be inherited by the children with the remainder going to the surviving spouse. Using the example above, David’s will could be structured so that $300,000 in assets go to Andrew and Benjamin, with the remaining $700,000 of his estate going to Sharon. 

This option does raise some additional issues, however: 

  • A guardian will need to be appointed if Andrew and Benjamin are minors when David dies. This will require their inheritance to be managed under the supervision of the court. 
  • Any assets inherited by Andrew and Benjamin will subtract from the assets inherited by Sharon, Catherine, and Frances. This could create a great deal of friction if Sharon can expect to live for many more years and must still take care of all of the children, paying for their education and other expenses. 
  • Catherine and Frances could stand to inherit substantially less than Andrew and Benjamin if there are any financial crises or other significant life events that substantially deplete the estate’s assets.

Even if the testator (the one creating the will) attempts to split the will equally, one or more heirs could be at a considerable disadvantage depending on how circumstances play out.  

Ultimately, blended families may simply need to do their best in making their estate plan as fair as possible. An estate planning attorney can develop a personalized estate plan that meets all of your needs. 

Revisit Your Estate Plan Frequently

Whatever you choose to do, spouses of blended families should revisit their estate plan often. Your priorities and your children’s needs may change as your life moves forward. It is possible that children from a prior marriage may stand to inherit a significant amount of money through the other parent. One spouse may be facing a long-term illness or permanent disability, meaning that their care becomes your first priority in estate planning. By reviewing your estate plan periodically, you can make the necessary adjustments to ensure that your will 

The Worst-Case Scenario

The worst-case scenario for a blended family is if the spouse dies with no will at all. When someone dies without a will, the estate will be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. For a blended family, this means that the estate will be divided between the surviving spouse and the children from outside of the current marriage. This could leave the spouse with insufficient assets to provide for their own care and the care of the children shared between the two spouses. Furthermore, it could result in the sale of important assets, such as a home, in order to split the estate according to the law. 

The bottom line is that any estate plan is better than no estate plan when it comes to blended families. A skilled estate planning attorney can work with you to ensure that your spouse and your children are properly cared for after your death. 

Need to Discuss Your Estate Plan? Contact Ellis Law Group Today 

At Ellis Law Group, we know how to navigate the challenges that blended families face. Call us today at 561-910-7500 or send us an email to discuss your estate planning needs and how we can help.