Many people assume they don’t need an estate plan because their assets will naturally go to their family members. Although intestate succession laws do allow the assets of a person who dies without a will to be passed to their closest living relatives, stepchildren are specifically excluded. If you’re part of a blended family, well-written estate planning documents help ensure that everyone is provided for in the way that you intended.
Potential Problems Stepfamilies Face
When it comes to estate planning, there are three main challenges stepfamilies must deal with:
- Without a will, stepchildren have no legal right of inheritance. They are essentially no different than friends or neighbors. (If they were adopted, however, they are treated no differently than your blood relatives.)
- If you and your spouse both have children from a prior relationship, your own children could be accidentally disinherited if you were to pass away first and your assets were left to your spouse. It is also a possibility that your spouse could remarry or simply decide to change the will to exclude your biological children from an inheritance.
- If there is a significant age discrepancy between potential heirs, some many still rely on you for financial support. For example, if your children are still underage and your stepchildren are grown adults with families of their own, you may want to leave the bulk of your assets to your children to ensure they are properly cared for and able to continue their education.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to fairly distributing your assets as part of a blended family. Your relationship with each potential heir will play a role, as well as the wishes of both you and your spouse.
Some options that our estate planning attorneys often recommend include:
- Create a trust that provides income for your spouse during their lifetime but will eventually be passed to your children or stepchildren.
- Create a trust with different specifications for your children and stepchildren. Choose an impartial trustee that can’t be accused of favoritism in how the assets in the trust are handled.
- Buy life insurance listing your children or stepchildren as beneficiaries.
- Name a child or stepchild as the beneficiary on a pay-on-death financial account.
- Leave a small inheritance to the children or stepchildren directly instead of leaving everything to your spouse.
- Make sure personal items with sentimental value are fully accounted for in your will, so your children or stepchildren will receive the family heirlooms they treasure.
Regardless of what you decide, remember that it is best to refer to each child or stepchild by name in your planning documents instead of using general descriptions such as “descendant” or “heirs.” This prevents potential litigation due to ambiguous language.
If you have step-grandchildren, the same general principles apply to providing them with an inheritance. However, if you are concerned about your biological child’s stepchildren not receiving an inheritance you intended only for your blood relatives, a trust is generally the most effective way to ensure your property is passed in accordance with your wishes.
Navigating relationships in a blended family can be complicated. The best way to avoid conflict is to make sure your wishes are clearly known. Consider sitting down with your children and stepchildren to explain your reasoning for distributing your assets in the way that you’ve chosen. If this isn’t practical, consider writing a letter that can be distributed with your will. The letter won’t carry legal weight, but it can provide the clarity necessary to help your family move forward.
Do You Need To Speak With A Lawyer About Estate Planning?
If you need to speak with an experienced estate planning lawyer please contact us online or call our Virginia Beach office directly at 757.490.3500 to schedule your free consultation. We have offices throughout Virginia including Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk and Suffolk.