Today’s American families commonly have stepchildren, and they are treated as if they were full biological children, even in cases of inheritance. This is particularly true where stepchildren are part of a blended family from an early age. Biological siblings may have different feelings about a stepchild inheriting what they perceive is theirs as a natural heir. A surviving spouse may have the same feelings about their children’s inheritance.
Estate planning for blended families is key to a smooth inheritance process, especially since probate rules and intestate succession law do not treat step and biological children the same when it comes to inheriting. Open communication about your estate plan is also helpful in managing heirs’ expectations.
Trying to be equitable among your heirs can be tricky, and relying on your spouse and children to work things out after you are gone is not a good plan. To create a solid plan, carve out some quiet time and identify your most important estate planning goals, including distributions of all assets.
These assets include your house, car, jewelry, other personal items, investments, retirement plans, brokerage accounts, and insurance. If you opt to gift items before your death, be certain you no longer include the asset or property in your estate plan. Even items of little financial value may be an expected inheritance from a child. The goal is to reduce tensions among family members.
Share your ideas with your spouse and agree on a basic approach, including scenarios for who might pass away first. Leaving property outright to a surviving spouse may not be the best approach as it does not ensure the children, step or otherwise, ultimately benefit. Many blended family systems use a trust to provide for a spouse while leaving their property to their children.
Stepchildren can contest a will to be treated as a full biological child if they are named in a prior will. A will that was written before a remarriage creates an opportunity to contest. Note that your stepchildren have very little chance of inheritance without a will. Dying without a will or intestate prevents your stepchildren from inheriting in all but a very few states. In states where they are eligible, stepchildren will be considered last in line to inherit because of the laws of intestate succession.
A stepchild named in a previous will can challenge on the grounds of undue influence, lack of capacity, mistake, fraud, or coercion. If the will being contested is thrown out of probate, estate inheritance reverts to the next most recent will. A stepchild must be named in at least one prior will to have “standing” to challenge the will. If all wills are invalidated, the state will treat stepchildren as intestate heirs.
Even if a biological parent in concert with a stepparent makes their wills simultaneously and identically to leave the estate to one another, a surviving spouse can change their will upon the death of the other. It is possible for a surviving spouse to change their will, excluding the stepchildren. If the original will left equal shares to biological and stepchildren, a stepchild could contest to have the most recent will invalidated.
The idea of reciprocal or mutual wills as a binding contract is not recognized in most states. Only if the will specifically constitute a binding contract not to change the will can a mutual will be enforced. The truth is, it is far more reliable to create a trust to care for a surviving spouse and your children’s inheritance than depend on mutual wills and goodwill after you are gone.
While contesting a will is permissible under certain circumstances, there is no guarantee it will be successful. To ensure your legacy wishes are met, consult with a qualified attorney who understands the intricacies and nuances of estate planning for blended families and can provide the best advice for everyone. We hope you found this article helpful. If you have questions or would like to discuss a personal legal matter, don’t hesitate to contact our office at (716) 206-0588.