When people say “family,” what images come to mind? Traditionally, family meant a husband and wife who had a few children together. But these days family has many iterations beyond the traditional nuclear family. And some of those combinations are especially ripe for unexpected trouble after you pass away—unless you plan ahead.
Consider, for example, blended families. These families are ones where a spouse (or both) have at least one child from a previous marriage or relationship. These arrangements work fine when everyone is alive and well but once one parent passes away, that parent’s kids can be in for a world of disappointment.
To see why, let’s look at perhaps the most-famous blended family—the Brady Bunch. When Mike and Carol Brady married, each brought three children into the marriage. Mike had three boys and Carol three girls. Fortunately, Mike and Carol managed to raise the kids as one big, happy family. But let’s fast forward a few decades: What would have happened if Mike died before Carol?
Scenario #1: If Mike died intestate (meaning that he died without a will or revocable living trust), then his property would go to Carol consistent with their state’s intestacy laws. In other words, Carol would get most of Mike’s stuff.
Now let’s say that Carol dies a few years later without creating a will or getting married again. All of her stuff goes to her daughters. Mike’s sons, on the other hand, get nothing.
And if Carol married, and then died intestate, the result would be even more troubling because Carol’s new husband, not Mike’s sons, would get the lion’s share of Mike’s property.
Scenario #2: This time let’s assume that Mike, Carol, and the kids were not one, big happy family; and that Mike died intestate before Carol. What could happen?
As before, intestacy law would strongly favor Carol. And, so, in many cases she could stop Mike’s sons from visiting the family home or receiving sentimental mementos. And, worse, she could guarantee that most of Mike’s wealth would go to her daughters rather than Mike’s sons.
As we can see, blended families pose troubling issues, whether or not the blended family likes each other. Fortunately, by being proactive, these troubles can be banished before storm clouds have a chance to gather.
Step one: Act now. Don’t wait until you get sick or hurt. Make a plan years before you think you will need it.
Step two: Tell your family the plan, preferably in person and again in writing. Disclosure early can cure many ills later.
Step three: Regularly update your plan to keep up with current events. For example, if one of your kids takes care of you while others don’t, you may want that kid to receive more since they did more.
Step four: Notify your family about the updates, preferably in person and again in writing.
Now that you know you need a plan, what should it look like? It depends on your circumstances. But generally speaking, here are three things to consider.
To begin, a simple will is normally too simple to address the complexities of a blended family. Don’t create a will that simply says your assets will pass to your spouse—unless you want your spouse to have the power to cut off your biological kids after you are gone.
For another, think hard about creating a trust rather than a will. The advantage here is that a trust is a vastly more flexible tool than a will for passing your wealth. For example, a properly drafted trust can protect your kids’ access to your assets if your spouse gets remarried. And it can be written to leave assets for your spouse during their lifetime and then, after they pass, transferring what is left over to your kids—not some random person that your spouse might fall for later.
Finally, consider putting some of your assets into accounts that will automatically transfer to your kids when you die, so that they are taken care of regardless of what your spouse does. For instance, you can go to your bank, fill out a form designating your beneficiary and, voila, the designated beneficiary will receive that account when you pass. These accounts (which are known as pay-on-death accounts, informal trusts, or Totten trusts) have several advantages: They’re free, easy to create, and simple to use for your designated beneficiary.
But if you set up one of these accounts, remember to regularly review it. It would be a bummer if you originally selected one of your kids, had a falling out with them, but accidentally left them as the designated beneficiary. In that case, it doesn’t matter that you did not want them to receive anything. They would still get the account because you didn’t update the beneficiary.
In sum, while blended families have become common, they are by no means easy. Indeed, they provide fertile ground for family drama. But with some thoughtful planning, this rich soil need not reap unexpected trouble.
This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be taken as legal advice. For your specific case, consult a lawyer.