As the rates of divorce across the U.S. increase, blended families are becoming more common. If you have recently gotten remarried, it is time to consider updating your estate plan or creating one if you have not previously done so.
Blended families present complex issues in estate planning due to the conflicts that may arise between current and former spouses, children, and step-children.
Updating Your Estate Planning Documents
If you have already created an estate plan, you already know how important it is to ensure it expresses your wishes in advance regarding what should happen if you become incapacitated and how your assets should be distributed. If you were previously married, you will need to gather all documents and information you have about any prior wills and trusts that were created so you can make necessary changes.
You will also want to gather any documents you have related to:
- retirement accounts,
- joint accounts, stocks, and, if you were previously divorced,
- a copy of your divorce decree.
Risks of Failing to Plan Your Estate
If you pass away without an estate plan, your property will be inherited according to what is known as “intestate succession.”
Intestate succession is what happens to an estate when a person has no will or other estate planning documents to determine how their assets will be distributed. This means that your assets are distributed according to state statute. It also means the way your assets could be distributed entirely against your wishes.
In Tennessee, if you are married with children and pass away without a will, your estate will be distributed to both your spouse and children. Your spouse's share must not be less than one-third. For children to inherit property from you, they must legally be your children. This means the children are your biological children or legally adopted by you.
A very common occurrence is unintentional disinheritance of your own children. I get calls from distressed adult children about this all of the time! Here is what they tell me: Mother died. Father remarried. Father's new spouse was previously married with children of her own. Father, upon remarrying, updated his will to leave everything to his new wife. Father died. The new spouse inherited everything. The new spouse died with a will leaving everything to his or her children. Do you see what just happened? The children of the deceased mother and father were completely disinherited. Yes, of course, sometimes this is intentional, but most of the time it was not. Most likely the surviving parent (father in this example) simply did not know that there were ways to protect BOTH his new spouse AND his own children.
Avoiding Probate Court
Another risk of failing to create an estate plan is that your surviving family members may end up in litigation in probate court. The costs of litigation can create an unnecessary burden on your descendants, and contested probate cases often cause family discord.
Expressing your wishes in a will or creating a trust to distribute your property can help keep this from happening to your family.
Consider Family Goals
Suppose you want to leave all your property to a surviving spouse. You will need to create a will or trust to make sure your property is distributed accordingly. Otherwise, your property will be distributed according to state law to your surviving spouse and other relatives.
Likewise, if you want to leave your property to your minor children or step-children, your estate plan must be tailored to reflect your wishes. You may want to consider dividing assets between an “old” and “new” family. Many people choose to plan their estate so that assets are divided according to each descendant's needs.
Another advantage of planning your estate is that careful legal strategies can preserve family assets by helping your blended family avoid probate court and estate taxes.