I was not going to mention the Brady Bunch. Starting a blended family article by referencing that ubiquitous 70’s TV family is too easy. Six kids fighting over a bathroom while Alice fends off Sam the Butcher is a nostalgia trip. The reality of starting over and marrying again requires real contemplation and planning. In 2022, absorbing the children of previous marriages, maintaining elements of financial and emotional equality and creating an estate plan tasks the adults that embark on this journey with a major responsibility.
The first step is to understand how each family member is defined for estate purposes. The natural born children of each parent are heirs-at-law and, if there was no will, would inherit their parent’s estate assets under the laws of intestacy along with the surviving spouse. A step-parent’s estate assets, under those same intestacy laws, would not be inherited. If both spouses wanted to provide equally for all of their children they would have to create a Will or set up a Trust. One exception would be if the step-parent adopts the other spouse’s children. Adoption would allow those children to inherit the step-parent’s estate assets under intestate succession. This could lead to a situation where children of the biological parent who gave up parental rights and later dies may not be considered heirs at law under the intestacy rules. For that biological parent, a will or Trust would also be necessary to ensure that their estate plan is carried out.
Estate plans, grounded in fairness, which seek to place the children of both spouses on equal footing have a better chance of being accepted without incident. It gets tricky when equality is not a realistic option. Wills require all necessary parties to sign Waivers and Consents before the document is admitted to Probate. In blended families that means that only some of the children have to sign off while the other children may receive a Notice of Probate. If one necessary party is upset with the Will and its contents or how the Will was the executed that party can refuse to sign a Waiver and Consent. This would prevent the Will from being admitted to Probate until a return Court date is scheduled and there are no unresolved issues. The fragility of this arrangement is an example why Wills are not always the best form of estate planning when a family is blended or complex.
Trust distributions to beneficiaries do not require court approval. Parents can design more nuanced estate plans through the use of Trusts while knowing that possibly disgruntled beneficiaries cannot easily prevent the Trust’s administration. One unsigned form can stall a Will’s progress. An unhappy Trust beneficiary or specifically excluded heir at law would have to pay to initiate an expensive legal proceeding while the Trust continued to operate.
Making one family out of two and ensuring the financial survival of the new family for decades to come is an act of caring and affection. Leaving things to chance is not an option. Wills and Trusts are necessary documents to provide legal security to the individuals making up a blended family. For more information contact the professionals at Sloan and Feller.