In the TV series “Modern Family," dad Jay Pritchett has two grown children and four grandchildren. He also has a second wife, Gloria, who's close to the same age as his kids. He and Gloria have a son of their own, and Jay is also raising a stepson from Gloria's previous marriage.
Jay is at the center of a complicated blended family, which makes for some funny situations on TV. Real life blended families, however, aren't always close and don't always share the same goals and values. When a parent passes away or becomes incapacitated, there's potential for conflict between the surviving spouse and children, and one or all of the parties may feel left out.
The key to minimizing these issues is a well-thought-out estate plan. Here are some strategies that blended families can use.
Setting up a trust
Married people commonly leave everything to each other in their wills. If you pass away first, your spouse will own all your property outright.
The issue for blended families is that your husband or wife may, over time, decide not to leave anything to your children from a previous relationship. It's easy to imagine Gloria remarrying, living 40 more years, and leaving her estate to her husband and two children — not to Jay's adult kids whom she hasn't seen in decades.
One way to provide for your spouse without leaving out your kids is to place some or all of your money and property in a trust that your spouse can use during his or her lifetime. Then, when your spouse passes away, everything in the trust can go to your children.
- You must choose someone to be trustee of the trust after you die. Your spouse and kids may have competing goals that will lead to family conflict. Many experts recommend picking a neutral trustee, such as a bank.
- If you set up a trust for a young spouse like Gloria, your children probably won't receive anything for many years and, unless your estate is quite large, there may be nothing left. You may want to designate your children as beneficiaries of your retirement accounts or life insurance policies to give them an immediate inheritance.
Retirement accounts and life insurance
Life insurance is another way to provide for a complex web of family members. You can, for example, leave most of your money and property to your spouse, but provide for your children by taking out a life insurance policy that names them as the beneficiaries.
Life insurance and retirement accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s aren't passed down through your will, but instead go directly to the primary beneficiary you have named — even if your will says otherwise. If you're divorced, make sure you've updated your beneficiaries so your retirement savings don't end up in the hands of your ex.
Living wills and powers of attorney
As part of any complete estate plan, you should have a document explaining your wishes if you become terminally ill (which is known as a living will), a healthcare power of attorney designating someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so, and a durable power of attorney naming someone to handle your financial affairs when you no longer can.
People often name their spouse, but in a blended family this sometimes leads to hurt feelings and arguments over what mom or dad would have wanted.
Whether your family is blended or not, it's always a good idea to choose someone who is level-headed and able to get along with other family members. And, to prevent surprises, let everyone know about your plans and wishes in advance.
What if I Don't do anything?
If you don't make any estate plan, the money and property that would ordinarily be handed down through your will will be divided according to your state's intestacy laws. This means that you won't have any say over how your property is split among your spouse and your children. And it's likely that your stepchildren won't inherit anything.
If your family looks more like “Modern Family" than “Leave It to Beaver," then a blended family estate plan can provide for both your spouse and your children, while also minimizing opportunities for conflict and stress after you're gone.
Find out more about Estate Planning Basics