The so-called “nuclear” family of a husband, wife and two kids is going the way of the dodo bird. Today, many families feature more complex dynamics, such as the blending of two families after a divorce. This article provides key tips to ensure your estate plan properly addresses and respects these complexities.
In today's society, the modern family comes in a variety of different shapes, sizes and dynamics. For example, a single family could be composed of individuals who are wealthy, poor, young, older, married, divorced, in college, struggling with an addiction, etc. There is also the increasingly common dynamic of a “blended” family, where two families combine into one (typically the product of a divorce or a pre-deceased spouse). As families are becoming more diverse and complex, the challenges become greater for effective estate planning.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 4.7 percent of all children under the age of 18 are stepchildren. This means more than 4.1 million children reside in a home with a parent that is not their biological parent. It is estimated that more than half of U.S. families feature a parent who has remarried or re-coupled. In addition, surveys have been conducted that reflect the following family structures are becoming more common in the United States:
- Living together, but not legally married
- First marriage, living together
- Second or subsequent marriage
- Same-sex couple
|Types of Reported Marital Status in the United States||Percentage|
Transparency and full disclosure about who gets what can save you, and your loved ones, a tremendous amount of time and avoid potential conflict between beneficiaries. Unfortunately, a surprisingly high percentage of families have reported that they have never discussed the details of an estate plan with their elderly loved ones. This is a big mistake since open discussions reduce the risk of “surprise” among beneficiaries.
When you communicate about your estate plan, it helps to reduce the risk of potential conflict among your heirs which will help ensure your estate is distributed in accordance with your wishes.
Having open and candid conversations with loved ones about your estate plan also brings up the issue of sentimental assets and heirlooms. You may be surprised at how often a family dispute arises not over life insurance payouts or trust funds. Rather, the dispute is over a cherished personal item such as a piece of jewelry, a book collection, etc. When you have an open dialogue with your beneficiaries, it will help to determine who most cherishes these types of assets the most. Dealing with this issue up front may also help reduce the risk of valuable personal effects and sentimental assets suddenly going missing from the estate.
If you have a “blended” family or another “complex” family structure where you re-married after a divorce or you were pre-deceased by your spouse, relying on a simple will that you printed from a website on the internet is probably not going to do the job. Relying solely on a will exposes you to the risk that your biological children could be cut out of your spouse's estate down the road. If you want to create an “I love you” will leaving everything to your spouse, but be aware that after you pass away, your spouse could cut out your children and leave all of your assets to their own children, a new spouse or anyone they prefer. They have no legal obligation to pass on your assets to your children.
A better estate planning tool would be to establish a trust that leaves assets to your spouse for their lifetime, with the balance passing to your children upon the death of your spouse. This will help ensure that your spouse has access to the funds and assets in your estate during their lifetime, but the remaining assets will then go to your children.
It may be difficult to contemplate your spouse falling in love again and maybe even starting a new family, but it is a scenario that comes to fruition with regularity. That is why you need to plan for this possibility and assess how you want your estate plan structured to protect your assets. As mentioned, a trust can help ensure that the assets are protected in the event your spouse remarries.
Even before you pass away, there is an issue that can trigger major conflict between blended families. That issue is a parent who becomes incapacitated. They are still alive but cannot make decisions for themselves. In many states, you are only allowed to name a single individual who will be empowered to make health care decisions on your behalf, in case you become incapacitated. It is extremely important to address this issue and discuss this role with the individual you select, whether that be your spouse, child, attorney, etc.
If you have a blended or complex family structure, it would be prudent to schedule a time to speak with an experienced and knowledgeable trust and estate planning attorney about your goals and objectives with your estate plan.