A good estate plan helps to alleviate conflict in any family. Blended families–that is, spouses who have children from a previous relationship–may have additional concerns that should be discussed with an estate planning expert. Here are some basic tips:
Figure Out Your Goals
With family planning that includes stepchildren, some estate planning decisions may not be so straightforward. Think about the following issues:
If you die, how should your assets be split between your children and your spouse? Keep in mind that leaving everything outright to your spouse does not guarantee that your biological children will inherit your assets. Your surviving spouse could change his or her estate plan or spend all of the money. In this scenario, consider a joint or separate trust to ensure both your spouse and your children are cared for.
If you are incapacitated, who should make financial decisions for you? Medical decisions?
If your children are minors at the time of your death, who should be in charge of their inheritances?
You may want to take a moment to consider these issues alone before addressing them with your spouse. These might be sensitive discussions and decisions should be communicated clearly with your spouse and children.
Review Old Decisions
Changes happen throughout life and can change your goals. It is extremely important that you change your estate planning documents and update beneficiary designations to remove your ex-spouse. You might also consider adding your stepchildren to your estate plan if that is important to you.
Prenuptial Agreement. A prenuptial agreement will disclose each partner’s assets and address how assets should be divided in the event of death or divorce. Spouses can also promise not to challenge his or her partner’s estate plan in a prenuptial agreement. A postnuptial agreement is also an option for those that have already tied the knot.
Gifting. You might consider giving gifts to your children and other beneficiaries while you are still alive. Gifts less than the annual federal gift tax exclusion amount of $15,000 do not require you to file a gift tax return. That is $15,000 per person per year, not total gifts. Of course, any gift giving should be balanced against the current needs of you and your spouse.
Heirlooms. You may own some family heirlooms that might not be worth much but that carry sentimental value. Use a personal property memorandum in your will or trust to list these items and who you would like to receive them.
You want to be fair to everyone. Open communication and a well-drafted estate plan can go a long way in addressing the unique concerns of blended families. It is crucial that you consult with everyone involved — including your attorney and tax adviser.