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The challenges of estate planning in blended families

The Brady Bunch isn't just a TV show from another era. More than ever, American households are taking on the look of Mike, Carol and their brood. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Census says that 1,300 new stepfamilies are formed every day. And blended families come with their own set of challenges, both emotionally and financially.

Estate planning in stepfamilies becomes a bit complicated, and when it comes time to distribute assets, things can get a little dicey. What are some important things to keep in mind so the process will go smoothly for all involved?

Here are a few tips from the Institute for Family Studies:

Determine Who Your Family Is

On the surface, that may sound strange. The fact is, though, that while all states have laws protecting the rights of children who are accidentally left out of wills as well as children of parents who die intestate, these laws do not apply to stepchildren.

From a legal standpoint, a stepchild is viewed the same as a friend or neighbor; no familial relationship is recognized. Additionally, if you leave everything to your spouse, there is no guarantee that things will eventually be divided equitably for your children. This is especially true if there is tension between your spouse and your children, which is sometimes the case in stepfamilies.

If you are married and you or your spouse has children from a previous relationship, you must specify in your will which children will receive part of your assets upon your passing. Since the law looks at non-blood relationships differently, don't assume anything. Spell everything out clearly.

Be Prepared To Overcome Estate Planning Challenges

Estate planning in blended families comes with its own unique set of challenges and potential problems. These include:

  • The possibility of children being disinherited. If you simply leave everything to your spouse, your children may not inherit anything.
  • If you precede your spouse in death, will your children have to wait for the death of the stepparent before receiving their inheritance? This creates a sort of "deathwatch," with stepchildren waiting for the stepparent to die so they can inherit. So consider whether it's wise to withhold all distributions until the death of your spouse.
  • Assets going to a former spouse who has not been removed as a beneficiary. Check life insurance policies, retirement accounts and other investments to make sure they are up to date and accurately reflect your wishes. While some states automatically revoke an ex-spouse's right of inheritance upon divorce, not all do.
  • The effect of the expenses of long-term care on the inheritance of children. Your spouse's long-term illness could eat up all the money you wish to pass on to your children.
  • Ensuring that family heirlooms or items with sentimental value are being passed on to children of a previous marriage. This should be discussed and clearly stipulated in your will.

In all cases, an experienced attorney should be consulted when planning your estate. This is especially so in stepfamilies, where the laws give few rights to stepchildren and issues of inheritance can become muddied.

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