Estate Planning for Blended Families

When a couple in a blended family fails to address what will happen after the first spouse dies, families often find themselves embroiled in disputes.  According to the article “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues” from The News-Enterprise, this is more likely to occur when spouses marry after their separate children are already adults, don’t live in the parent’s home and have their own lives and families.

In this case, the spouse is seen as the parent’s spouse, rather than the child’s parent. There may be love and respect. However, it’s a different relationship from long-term blended families where the stepparent was actively engaged with all of the children’s upbringing and parents consider all of the children as their own.

For the long-term blended family, the planning must be intentional. However, there may be less concern about the surviving spouse changing beneficiaries and depriving the other spouse’s children of their inheritance. The estate planning attorney will still raise this issue, and the family can decide how important it is to them.

When relationships between spouses and stepchildren are not as close, or are rocky, estate planning must proceed as if the relationship between stepparents and stepsiblings will evaporate on the death of the natural parent. If one spouse’s intention is to leave all of their wealth to the surviving spouse, the plan must anticipate trouble.

One very common approach to this issue is to set up a trust for the surviving spouse, which is often called a marital trust.  This establishes a trust for the benefit of the spouse, but whatever remains in the trust will go to the deceased spouse’s beneficiaries.  So, you can have your spouse benefit from your money, but make sure what’s left goes to your kids.

In some families, there is no intent to deprive anyone of an inheritance. However, failing to plan appropriately—having a will, setting up trusts, etc.—is not done and the estate plan disinherits children.

It’s important for the will, trusts and any other estate planning documents to define the term “children” and in some cases, use the specific names of the children. This is especially important when there are other family members with the same or similar names or perhaps a lack of clarity as to who the children are.

In Texas, this issue is even bigger when you don’t have an estate plan for a blended family.  If the decedent raised a stepchild in their home, they could potentially be considered a child of the decedent through adoption by estoppel.  If that’s true, then they are a child as far as the estate is concerned.

As long as the parents are well and healthy, estate plans can be amended. If one of the parents becomes incapacitated, changes cannot be legally made to their wills. If one spouse dies and the survivor remarries and names a new spouse as their beneficiary, it’s possible for all of the children to lose their inheritances.

Most people don’t intend to disinherit their own children or their stepchildren when estate planning for blended families. However, this occurs often when the spouses neglect to revise their estate plan when they marry again, or if there is no estate plan at all. An estate planning attorney has seen many different versions of this and can create a plan to achieve your wishes and protect your children.

It also makes sense to consider the children’s role in your finances as you age as the blended family situation may complicate the matter.  See this article where I addressed that more specifically.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-blended-family-and-issues-with-finances-and-estate-planning/  

A final note: be realistic about what may occur when you pass. While your spouse may fully intend to maintain relationships with your children, lives and relationships change. Clients often struggle to confront this or admit it to themselves, but I assure you it comes out later, and we can plan better when all of the issues are addressed.  With an intentional estate plan, parents can take comfort in knowing their property will be passed to the next generation—or two—as they wish.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Dec. 7, 2021) “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues”

 

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Estate Planning Checklist

Dying without an estate plan creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about a will when they marry or have children, and then do not think about wills or estate plans until they retire. While a will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.  To help identify those needs, I prepared an estate planning checklist which you can find below.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.  To help figure out what you may need, you can use this article as an estate planning checklist.

Here are nine specific tasks that need to be completed for your estate plan to be effective. The documents should be prepared based upon your state’s law with the help of a qualified estate planning attorney.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your estate plan.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the fiduciaries named in your estate plan (e.g. executor, trustee)
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create a Directive to Physicians (Living Will), to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Tell the these people that you have chosen them and discuss these roles and their responsibilities with them if you are ready

As you go through your estate planning checklist, be realistic about the people you are naming to serve as fiduciaries. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history, and they should not be in charge of your money.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your last will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your estate plan every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old estate plans can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate.  See this article for my ideas as to when to update your estate plan and what to consider.  You might find reviewing the estate planning checklist helpful at that time as well.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/when-to-update-your-estate-plan/

An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

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Twelve Reasons to Update your Estate Plan

Clients know they are supposed to review their estate plans, but don’t know when to do it. Here are twelve times when it makes sense to review your plan.

Estate planning lawyers hear it all the time—people meaning to update their estate plan, but somehow never getting around to actually getting it done. The only group larger than the ones who mean to “someday,” are the ones who don’t think they ever need to update their documents, says the article “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” from Kiplinger. The problems become abundantly clear when people die, and survivors learn that their will or trust is so out-of-date that it creates a world of problems for a grieving family.  For the purposes of this article I’ll focus on property planning, meaning wills and trusts, but there are lots of other reasons to review and update your entire estate plan.

There are some wills and trusts that do stand the test of time, but they are far and few between. An obvious example is that some people shift from wills to trusts as their primary estate planning vehicle.  Families also undergo all kinds of changes, and those changes should be reflected in the will or trust. Here are twelve times in life when wills and trusts need to be reviewed:

Welcoming a child to the family. The focus is on naming a guardian and a trustee to oversee their finances. The will and trust should be flexible to accommodate additional children in the future.  In some cases, a new child may disrupt the estate plan if no provisions are made for them.

Divorce is a possibility. Don’t wait until the divorce is underway to make changes. Do it beforehand. If you die before the divorce is finalized, your spouse will have marital rights to your property. Once you file for divorce, in many states you are not permitted to change your estate plan, until the divorce is finalized. Make no moves here, however, without the advice of your attorney.

Your divorce has been finalized. If you didn’t do it before, update your estate plan now. Don’t neglect updating beneficiaries on life insurance and any other accounts that may have named your ex as a beneficiary.

When your child(ren) marry. You may be able to mitigate the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating trusts for your beneficiary, so anything you leave your child will be protected in the case of their divorce.

Your beneficiary has problems with drugs or money. Money left directly to a beneficiary is at risk of being attached by creditors or dissolving into a drug habit. Updating your estate plan to includes trusts that allow a trustee to only distribute funds under optimal circumstances protects your beneficiary and their inheritance for both themselves and for later beneficiaries.

Named executor, trustee or beneficiary dies. Your old will or trust may have a contingency plan for what should happen if a beneficiary, executor or trustee dies, but you should probably revisit the plan. Many times, clients have one answer for what happens if a fiduciary or beneficiary die while it is hypothetical, but feel differently once it happens.  If a named executor or trustee dies and you don’t update the estate plan, then what happens if the second dies?

A young family member grows up. Most people name a parent as their executor or trustee, then a spouse or trusted sibling. Two or three decades go by. An adult child may now be ready to take on the task of handling your estate.  This is one of the most obvious and common reasons for a younger client to update their estate plan.

New laws go into effect. In recent months, there have been many big changes to the law that impact estate planning, from the SECURE Act to the CARES act. Ask your estate planning attorney every few years, if there have been new laws that are relevant to your estate plan.  It is also a great idea to subscribe to legal blogs (like this one) to stay up to date on changes.

An inheritance, windfall or downfall. If you come into a significant amount of money, your tax liability changes. You’ll want to update your will, so you can do efficient tax planning as part of your estate plan.

Can’t find your will and/or trust? If you can’t find the original documents, especially with the will, then you need new documents. Copies of wills may only be probated with extra steps, so it is far better to redo the documents which will also serve to update it legally.

Buying property in another country or moving to another country. Some countries have reciprocity with America. However, transferring property to an heir in one country may be delayed, if the will needs to be probated in another country. Ask your estate planning attorney, if you need wills for each country in which you own property.  It is also worth considering changes if you acquire real property in a new state which may require probating in two states.

Family and friends are enemies. Friends have no rights when it comes to your estate plan. If you suspect that your family may push back to any bequests to friends, consider adding a “No Contest” clause to disinherit family members who try to elbow your friends out of the estate.

In all cases, it is important to review your estate plan every few years, but looking for these reasons to update our estate plan will help.  Changing your estate plan is also not as involved as one might think.  Changes to wills often require a new will, changes to trusts take a variety of forms (see here https://www.galliganmanning.com/amending-a-trust-what-are-your-options/) but are often not very involved.

If you haven’t reviewed your estate plan recently or need assistance with a review or updates, please call our office today.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

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