Estate Planning in Blended Families
Oct 22 2023
By: John Drapp
As a kid, I watched The Brady Bunch for entertainment. I’m probably dating myself anyway, but I’ll add that I was watching the reruns. Today though, I think I’d be more interested in contemplating how the Bradys would want to set up their estate plans than I would be in seeing how two bedrooms could be divided up amongst six children.
For those that aren’t familiar, the show followed a blended family comprised of a single father of three young boys who marries a single woman with three young daughters. The jokes, corny as they were, practically wrote themselves. But that type of family situation often raises some very important estate planning considerations. When spouses are each in their first marriage and all their children are the children of both, the estate planning goals are often identical for each spouse. Planning can get more complicated though when there are multiple relationships and stepchildren involved.
Estate planning for people in blended families presents several different issues to be considered. First among these considerations is how joint ownership works. For example, most married couples that own a home together in Connecticut hold title as joint tenants. When real estate is held by joint tenants, each party has a right of survivorship. This means that upon the death of one of the joint owners, the other joint owner owns the entire property automatically. This is true even if the deceased joint owner has a will that leaves everything to someone other than the surviving joint owner. The same thing happens with a joint bank account. When the first joint owner dies, the surviving joint owner owns the entire bank account even if a will provides for something different.
Another consideration is whether each spouse’s children are going to be treated as children of both. Many times, if the blended family was created when all the children were young, like in the show, the couple may want all the children to be treated as the children of both. If the blended family was created when all the children were already adults though, each spouse may want their respective children to inherit their estates.
So, if Carol and Mike owned a home together as joint tenants and had joint checking and savings accounts, what would happen if Mike died? Carol would get everything regardless of anything Mike’s will might say. Then, if Carol died, her will (or the intestacy laws if she didn’t have a will) would control what happens to her property. If she had a will leaving everything equally to her daughters and Mike’s sons, then maybe there wouldn’t be an issue (assuming of course, that is what Mike and Carol both wanted). But, what if Carol did something different? Or, even worse, what if Carol did no planning at all? If Carol did not have a will, and had not legally adopted Mike’s sons, then Connecticut law would divide her property equally among her three daughters. Would Mike have wanted his share of the assets to all go to Carol’s daughters with nothing to his own sons? The sad reality is that it wouldn’t really matter what Mike wanted, because that’s what would happen in that situation.
A carefully crafted plan can avoid all of this and the family strife that often accompanies inadvertent consequences of inadequate or nonexistent estate planning. The intentions of a couple whose marriage created a blended family can be easily achieved with the use of trusts and life estates where a will isn’t enough. But inadequate or nonexistent planning can often lead to unintended consequences.
If you have a blended family, what legacy do you want to leave behind?
Whatever it is, we can help you make your intentions are honored.
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