Modern American families look far different today than they did in the past. While marriages were once expected to last a lifetime, divorce rates have long been on the rise. According to recent research, an estimated 50% of all family households could now be considered “blended,” with one or both partners having children from prior relationships. Although many blended families live harmoniously, unexpected challenges and major disagreements can and often do arise when one spouse passes away, leaving their separate assets to unspecified heirs and an uncertain future.
Why Conventional Estate Planning Strategies Don’t Always Work for Blended Families
Under most circumstances, writing a simple will is insufficient protection against uncertainty. If probate-related disagreements arise, a will cannot always preserve your intended heirs’ share of the inheritance. Even if you intend to leave the entirety of your estate to your surviving spouse, there is no guarantee that their estate plan will accommodate your own biological children.
While you should expect that your spouse will honor your last wishes and distribute your share of assets equitably, a good-faith effort could fall short if their own estate plan is not explicitly structured to allocate gifts to both their biological children and your biological children.
Additionally, in a worst-case scenario, a blended family could face problems if:
The Will Is Vague
Vague wills have vague outcomes. If you wrote your own will or tried to bequeath certain high-value assets without first consulting an attorney, your intent could be lost and left to interpretation by a Rhode Island probate court.
An Heir Is Unhappy With Their Share of the Estate
Rhode Island’s probate code and succession laws typically privilege the decedent’s closest living relatives, with priority given to the surviving spouse and biological children. However, even when an estate plan accommodates both the surviving spouse and their biological children, disputes may arise if an heir believes they are entitled to a larger share of the estate than what is indicated in the will.
Unless your estate plan contains specific language and instructions, a disgruntled heir—perhaps your spouse, a biological child, or even a step-child—could challenge the terms of your will in court. Even if the challenge is ultimately unsuccessful, litigation is expensive, and your estate may be drained of assets before probate concludes.
Assets Are Exhausted Before the Surviving Spouse’s Death
You might have an agreement with your spouse: you will name your spouse as the sole beneficiary in your will, and they will name you as the sole beneficiary in theirs. If you have a loving, trusting relationship, you might expect your surviving spouse to use your assets to care for your biological children after you have passed away.
However, even if your spouse makes a good-faith effort to protect and preserve your assets, there is no guarantee that their value will hold, whether due to an unexpected collapse in stock prices or inadvertent mismanagement.
Without the right estate plan, your biological children could find themselves receiving a significantly smaller inheritance than if you had taken the right steps to ensure your legacy.
Estate Planning Strategies for Blended Families
Parents in blended families do not have to leave their heirs’ inheritances up to chance. You can protect your estate’s longevity by:
Establishing a Revocable Living Trust
A revocable living trust allows many assets to be passed to heirs outside of probate, sparing beneficiaries the pain, rigors, and expenses associated with a formal estate succession. Additionally, since trust distributions can be conditioned, you may elect to prevent your heirs from receiving trust assets until they have reached a certain age or attained a certain level of education.
Nominating an Experienced Trustee
A successor trustee is charged with administering a revocable living trust after the trustor has passed away. Ideally, a trustee should be someone who is experienced, impartial, and capable of managing your assets without bias. Many Rhode Islanders ask their estate planning attorney to oversee their trusts for them.
Appointing a Trustworthy Health Care Proxy
Even close-knit, loving families can be torn apart by catastrophe. A health care proxy, or agent, is somebody authorized to make important medical decisions in the event that you are ever incapacitated by illness, injury, or disability. Since your spouse, children, and step-children may all disagree about who can best represent your interests, nominating a health care proxy can help avoid conflict.
Discussing Guardianship Arrangements With Your Spouse
A guardian is somebody who can take care of your child’s needs if you pass away before that child reaches the age of majority. Guardianship decisions are critically important for blended families, as the court could award custody to the child’s other parent, even if you and your current spouse have made alternate arrangements.
Do You Need to Talk With a Rhode Island Estate Planning or Probate Lawyer?
Blended families deserve the same protections and benefits as traditional nuclear families. Kirshenbaum & Kirshenbaum Attorneys at Law, Inc. has spent decades advocating for the best interests of Rhode Island families of every size. Please send us a message online, or call us at 401-946-3200 to schedule your initial consultation, and prevent probate disputes before they ever arise.