Blended families are everywhere in pop culture — from the swinging ‘60s vibes of The Brady Bunch to the complex, intertwined family arrangements we see in shows ranging from Modern Family to Cheaper By the Dozen.
And blended families aren’t confined to the small screen! According to the most recent data from Pew Research Center, roughly 16% of children in America are living in what the Census Bureau designates as a blended family – that is, “a household with a stepparent, stepsibling or half-sibling.” At the same time, remarriage is continuing to become more and more commonplace in the U.S., with Pew reporting that a full 40% of new marriages include “at least one partner who had been married before.”
For many, the opportunity to blend two families together is one of life’s biggest gifts. However, it is also a process that can come with its fair share of unique challenges and logistical hurdles, particularly when it comes to matters that often get overlooked on the silver screen — including estate planning.
Why Estate Planning Is Important for Blended Families
Estate planning refers to the process of making arrangements during your life for what will happen to your estate when you become incapacitated or pass on. This can mean everything from planning ahead for your burial, to distributing your assets to your friends and family — including your home, vehicle, investments, savings accounts, and personal possessions.
While it can be intimidating to think about, planning ahead for this transition can make it much easier for your family down the line. Estate planning is not only for the extremely wealthy or the elderly. There are important steps you can take to plan ahead at every stage of life’s journey, whether you are purchasing a new home, welcoming a new child into the world, or combining households with a new partner or spouse.
Still not sure if estate planning is necessary? Here are three big reasons why blended families should be thoughtful and proactive about estate planning:
1.) Providing for Everyone
Every family is one-of-a-kind. Blended families, in particular, come with their own unique dynamics that must be accounted for — and which can quickly become complicated when dealing with matters related to inheritance and probate.
With thoughtful and comprehensive estate planning, spouses can take action to ensure that the members of their family are treated equitably through the use of mechanisms including wills and trusts. A will is a legal document by which a person can express their wishes as to how their property is to be distributed upon their death, as well as naming an executor of the estate, who manages the decedent’s estate until its final distribution. A trust is a legal arrangement that allows a third party, known as the trustee, to hold and manage assets chosen by the grantor, on behalf of one or more chosen beneficiaries.
Through the use of these estate planning mechanisms, individuals can take critical steps to ensure that their most cherished assets are distributed in line with their wishes. Without proper estate planning, on the other hand, matters are decided by Illiinois’ complex laws of intestate succession. This might result in circumstances that go against your deeply held preferences — for example, by failing to distribute any property to a beloved stepchild who does not qualify as an heir under Illinois law, or, in contrast, by allowing your biological children to inherit a share of the estate that you would prefer to go to another relative, such as a spouse or a living parent.
Similarly, using estate planning mechanisms can give you a high degree of control over when and how your assets are distributed; for instance, you may set up a trust to provide for a child with special needs; to hold the right to an inheritance until a designated specific time, such as when a child reaches a certain age or gets married; or else to create provisions designed to ensure that a beneficiary is not able to squander their inheritance. Similarly, you might use your will to decide the status of beloved family heirlooms with sentimental value, which might get otherwise overlooked or become a source of contention.
2.) Keeping Everything Up to Date
Your blended family may be your future — but that doesn’t mean that all of the binding documents and agreements associated with your past will simply disappear overnight. Sitting down with a legal professional to create a comprehensive estate plan can help ensure that nothing goes overlooked or forgotten as you move through some of life’s biggest transitions.
For example, it is important to remember that there are many types of assets that do not pass through probate under Illinois law, including those with Payable-on-Death (POD) or Transfer-on-Death (TOD) designations — a broad category that might include a number of incredibly important financial assets, including bank accounts, brokerage accounts, insurance policies, retirement accounts, and securities. It is more common than you might think for someone to remarry, adopt a child, or experience another major life event without updating their beneficiary designations on these important assets. When this happens, a former spouse or an estranged child might stand to benefit, rather than your intended recipient.
Similarly, it is important to remember that estate planning can also help determine what happens to you and your loved ones in the event of incapacitation or a critical illness. As your circumstances change over time, it may be crucial to revisit whom you have appointed to serve as your power of attorney for healthcare and/or property — as this person or organization has the power to make decisions and manage affairs on your behalf, in the event that you are no longer able to do so for yourself. This is a situation that can make an already difficult time all the more complicated — making planning ahead all the more essential. Similarly, combining families with a new spouse might prompt new discussions over who you wish to serve as the guardian for any minor children in the household, a designation that can be made using a will.
3.) Larger Families Can Mean More Room for Disputes
While every estate is unique, it is safe to say that the more people and opinions that are involved, the more room there is for conflict. For instance, children from a previous marriage might feel slighted if an inheritance is weighted in favor of a couple’s shared biological children. A surviving spouse who inherits the bulk of a deceased spouse’s estate may then change his or her own will, excluding their spouse’s children entirely. Similarly, a decedent’s survivors may argue over assets placed in a trust; for instance, a decedent’s children might be tempted to take legal action if they believe that a surviving spouse is wasting their inheritance through extravagant distributions or mismanagement.
Probate can drag on and become more complex if there are lots of questions or disputes around a decedent’s estate. Estate planning is a way to prepare for potential conflicts and disputes before they happen, minimizing the potential adverse financial and emotional effects on your loved ones during an already trying time. An experienced estate planning and probate attorney can help you prepare for these eventualities through thoughtful and comprehensive planning, which might include decisions such as choosing the right trust mechanism for your family’s needs, as well as choosing neutral, sophisticated, and competent fiduciaries. This might include selecting an executor, conservator, and/or trustee who can help ensure that your assets are handled properly, while also serving as an effective medium between your family members.
And finally, an attorney with experience in life transitions and other areas of family law can help you consider other mechanisms that can help maintain order and ensure that your wishes are carried out. For instance, a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement is a useful tool that can help you and a new spouse to prepare ahead of time for challenges down the road, including matters of estate planning. A pre- or postnuptial agreement can allow you and your spouse to take a number of actions that can help simplify and streamline things for your loved ones, minimizing the risk for disputes and conflicts — including making provisions for the event of a death, allocating debts and marital assets, determining responsibility for bills and joining obligations, and even setting boundaries and guidelines for business operations.
Interested in Getting Started With Estate Planning for Your Blended Family? Our Skilled Legal Professionals Are Here for You.
Preparing for the unknown can be difficult, especially if you are doing it alone. Whether you’re looking to get started with estate planning, update your current plan to accommodate your changing needs, or guide an estate through the complex Illinois probate process, our team of experienced and compassionate advocates is here and ready to help.
At The Law Offices of J. Jeltes, Ltd.., we know what it takes to guide you through some of life’s most challenging family transitions. As you and your loved ones look to the future, we can help you understand what goes into the estate planning process, evaluate your assets, and prepare all necessary documents, including basic wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and advanced directives.
Our legal professionals are driven, attentive, and dedicated to achieving the best result possible. Every situation is unique and before hiring our firm, our attorneys will provide you with a comprehensive one-on-one consultation to discuss your legal concerns and goals.
Have any more questions about estate planning for blended families? Ready to get started? Don’t hesitate to contact us whenever you’d like to begin the conversation.