7 minute read

Blended Family Estate Planning: Challenges, Tips, and Mistakes to Avoid

The modern family looks different from the traditional nuclear family, so our estate planning strategies need to change along with shifting family dynamics.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Estate planning can be an intricate process for anyone, but it can become even more complex when it comes to blended families. In today's society, families coming together with children from previous marriages or relationships is now a part of the norm.

The ideas of what a modern family looks like are certainly changing. However, estate planning laws are archaic and are designed around the traditional nuclear family model. The laws are slow to adapt, so the onus is on us to ensure that our estate plan caters to our unique circumstances.

This guide will dive into what it means to be a part of a blended family, how to plan your estate around it, special tips, and common mistakes to avoid.

What is a Blended Family?

A blended family, also known as a stepfamily or a bonus family, is one where at least one parent has children that are not genetically related to the other spouse or partner. This can occur through adoption, or more commonly when the couple brings children from previous relationships into the new union.

Blended families are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. According to Pew Research Center, 16% of children are living in a blended family. This includes 11% living with a stepparent, step- or half-sibling, or both. Another source reports that 40% of families in the U.S. are blended, with at least one partner having children from a previous relationship before marriage. 

Here are some examples of how families become blended:

  • Two Divorcees with Children: When two divorcees, each with children from their previous marriages, come together and form a new family.

  • Widowed Parent with Children Remarrying: A family where a widowed parent with children marries another individual, who may or may not have children of their own.

  • One Parent with Children Marrying Someone Without Children: This blended family includes a parent with children from a previous relationship marrying someone who has never had children.

  • Families with Adopted Children: This refers to a couple who have adopted children, and one or both partners have biological children from previous relationships.

  • Same-Sex Couples with Children: This could be a same-sex couple who each have children from previous relationships, or who have adopted or used surrogacy to have children.

  • Families with Foster Children: A family where one or both partners have biological children and have also taken in foster children.

Estate Planning Challenges

As you might imagine, creating a union with children from previous relationships, foster care, or adoption can bring about unique challenges.

Blended families have their own unique dynamics and varying degrees of success. Studies examining stepfamilies highlight that marriages that include children from previous relationships have a failure rate of approximately 60 to 70 percent. This statistic is echoed by the Census Bureau, which reveals a correlation between the number of marriages an individual has and the likelihood of divorce. Strikingly, this rate is almost double the general divorce rate.

When loved ones are involved, the stakes are admittedly high. Because it is a known fact that blending a family can be challenging, preparing for it can help in avoiding problems. One particular area to pay close attention to is the challenges families may face in the context of estate planning:

  • Complex Inheritance: Perhaps one of the biggest estate planning challenges for a blended family is figuring out how to fairly distribute assets amongst all the children. This can become particularly complex when there are both biological and stepchildren involved, as well as potential issues with other partners or ex-spouses.

  • Legal Rights of Stepchildren: Another challenge is understanding the legal rights and protections that stepchildren have in comparison to biological children. In some cases, stepchildren may not be entitled to inherit from a step parent's estate, which can create potential conflicts and misunderstandings.

  • Prior Obligations: When individuals enter into a second marriage, they may bring along previous obligations or commitments that could impact the distribution of their assets after their passing. This can be in the form of alimony payments, child support agreements, or even prenuptial agreements.

  • Balancing the Needs and Expectations of Different Generations: In blended families, there may be significant age gaps between children from different marriages. This can result in different needs and expectations, which can be challenging to balance in estate planning.

  • Determining Guardianship: Deciding who will take care of minor children in the event of the parents’ demise can be challenging, especially when there are ex-spouses or other relatives involved who may also wish to assume this role.

  • Managing Potential Conflict: Blended families can face heightened tension and conflict when it comes to the division of assets. The process of estate planning can bring these emotions to the surface, leading to potential disputes.

  • Lack of Legal Guidance: The legal system generally lacks clear and specific guidance for blended family estate planning, making it difficult for such families to navigate the process and ensure that all parties are adequately protected.

Top Tips for the Modern Family

Now that we understand some of the unique estate planning challenges faced by blended families, let's start looking at some solutions.

Here are our top tips to keep in mind as you being to form your estate planning strategy:

  • Be proactive: Don't wait until a major life event or illness to start thinking about estate planning. Start early and review your plans regularly to ensure they align with your current situation. Because of your blended family dynamic, the absence of an estate plan can create additional challenges for your loved ones.

  • Consider a Trust: A Trust can be an effective tool because it will give you more control over how assets are distributed. It can offer protection against potential conflicts and ensure that assets are used for their intended purpose.

  • Update Beneficiaries: It's important to regularly review and update beneficiary designations on assets such as life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and bank accounts. In blended families, this is particularly important. For example, it would be unfortunate (and awkward) if your payouts went to your ex-spouse instead of your most recent spouse.

  • Consult with Professionals: If you are concerned about the complexities of your family dynamics, we recommend consulting with a professional who specializes in this area. They can help you navigate legal and financial aspects and provide guidance.

  • Consider Life Insurance: Life insurance can be an effective way to provide for your loved ones in case of unexpected events. For blended families, it can ensure that children are taken care of, regardless of their biological or non-biological relationships.

  • Understand Inheritance Laws: In some cases, inheritance laws may dictate how assets are distributed in the event of death. These laws vary from state to state, so it's important to be aware of the laws in your domicile and protect yourself and your loved ones accordingly.

  • Incapacitation: Estate planning also involves planning for potential incapacitation. In blended families, this can be particularly important as there may be conflicts between step-children and biological children when making decisions about medical care or managing finances. Consider appointing a trusted individual to make important decisions on your behalf.

  • Communicate with Family: Open communication is essential in any family, but it's especially crucial in blended families when it comes to estate planning. It's important to involve all family members in discussions and be transparent about your wishes and decisions.

  • Understand Ownership Structures: Property ownership can come in different colors, such as sole ownership, joint, community, and more. Be sure to review any property you own and what would happen if you were to pass away. For example, one type of ownership could potentially create complications and potential conflicts down the line. It's time to take everything into consideration under the context of estate planning.

  • Keep Your Plan Updated: As your family dynamics change, it's important to review and update your estate plan accordingly. This may include adding or removing beneficiaries, adjusting assets, or making changes to your Will accordingly.

6 Estate Planning Pitfalls to Avoid: Blended Family

Planning your estate for potentially complicated family dynamics is a challenge, and because of this, there are mistakes and pitfalls to be had. However, the theme of this guide has centered on being aware of these issues so that you can move forward with extra care and consideration.

Be sure to keep these common pitfalls in mind when creating your estate plan:

1. Ignoring Potential Conflicts: One of the most common mistakes in blended family estate planning is to ignore potential family conflicts. It may be tempting to sweep issues under the rug and hope for the best. "All my children will get along at the end of the day," right? Unfortunately, that doesn't always go as planned, especially in your absence. It's critical to consider possible scenarios and make sure your plan is designed to minimize any disputes.

2. Not Specifying Guardianship: If there are minor children, not specifying who will earn Guardianship in the event of your passing could lead to legal challenges and a lot of unnecessary heartache.

3. Overlooking the Rights of Ex-Spouse(s): The rights of ex-spouses, especially those with children, must be taken into account. Overlooking this aspect can lead to legal battles and cause additional stress for everyone involved.

4. Not Being Explicit about Inheritances: Not all children are not automatically considered legal heirs under many state laws. This might include stepchildren or children of a partner who you have not formally and legally adopted. If you wish to include them in your estate, it must be explicitly stated in your Will.

5. Assuming a Simple Will is Enough: A simple Will might not cover all the complexities of a blended family's estate. Trusts, insurance policies, retirement accounts, and other tools may be needed for comprehensive estate planning.

6. Forgetting to Name or Update Beneficiary Designations: Assets like life insurance policies and retirement accounts are not typically governed by your Will. These require separate beneficiary designations that need to be updated as family dynamics change. Find out how beneficiary designations work.

Avoid this #1 Mistake

Of all things that could potentially happen, the number one mistake you can make is super simple to avoid: not getting started. We understand that this is a lot of information to take in and process.

As a member of a blended family, it very well could be that you have family dynamics that require extra and special consideration. Today we introduced a number of things to think about, such as how to make sure your estate plan is explicit enough to include all of your loved ones, or the importance of understanding how inheritance laws work in your state.

This can understandably make a process (which may already seem foreign) seem that much more daunting.  But remember the silver lining: you have your entire family's future to protect and it is possible to make sure everyone is taken care of in the way that you want them to be.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones is to take that first step and begin the process of estate planning.

Making Estate Planning Easier for All Families

We hope this guide has shed some light on estate planning for blended families and the potential challenges that can arise. It's important to recognize that every family is unique and may require different considerations when it comes to estate planning.

That's why Trust & Will has created an estate planning solution with all families in mind. We empower Americans by helping them put together a strong estate plan that will help them achieve their desired outcomes, no matter what their unique circumstances may look like. We understand that you're unique, and that's why your estate plan should be tailor made.

To find out what type of estate plan may best suit your needs, we suggest that you take our quiz. All you'll need to do is share a little bit about yourself and we'll match you with an estate plan. Then, you'll follow our prompts step-by-step and you'll be well on your way to creating your plan!

And remember, estate planning is an ongoing process. As your family dynamics change, it's important to continue reviewing and updating your plan. We cannot stress the importance of this enough. Do know that Trust & Will makes it super easy for our members to do exactly that.

We help make estate planning as accessible and seamless as possible so that you can get back to what's important in your life.

Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Browse more topics in our learn center or chat with a live member support representative! 

Trust & Will is an online service providing legal forms and information. We are not a law firm and we do not provide legal advice.


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