Today, it’s not unusual for a family to include children from prior marriages. These “blended” families can create estate planning complications that may lead to challenges in the courts after your death.
Fortunately, you can reduce the chances of family squabbles by using estate planning techniques designed to preserve wealth for your heirs in the manner you want, with a minimum of estate tax erosion, if any. Here are four examples:
1. Will. Your will generally determines who gets what, when, where and how. It may be combined with “inter vivos trusts” established during your lifetime or be used to create testamentary trusts, or both. While you can include a few tweaks for your blended family through a codicil to the will, if the intended changes are substantive — such as removing an ex-spouse and adding a new spouse — you should meet with your estate planning attorney to have a new will prepared.
2. Living trust. The problem with a will is that it has to pass through probate. In some states, this can be a costly and time-consuming process. Alternatively, you might transfer assets to a living trust and designate members of your blended family as beneficiaries. Unlike with a will, these assets are exempt from probate. With a revocable living trust, the most common version, you retain the right to change beneficiaries and distribution amounts. Typically, a living trust is viewed as a supplement to — not a replacement for — a basic will.
3. Prenuptial agreement. Generally, a “prenup” executed before marriage defines which assets are characterized as the separate property of one spouse or community property of both spouses upon divorce or death. As such, prenuptial agreements are often used to preserve wealth for the children of a first marriage before an individual enters into a second union. It may also include other directives, such as estate tax elections, that would occur if the marriage dissolved. Be sure to investigate state law concerning the validity of your prenup.
4. Marital trust. This type of a trust can be customized to meet the needs of blended families. It can provide income for the surviving spouse and preserve the principal for the deceased spouse’s designated beneficiaries, who may be the children of prior relationships. If certain tax elections are made, estate tax that is due at the first death can be postponed until the death of the surviving spouse.
These are just four estate planning strategies that could prove helpful for blended families. You might use others, or variations on these themes, for your personal situation. Consult with us to develop a comprehensive plan.