Today, it's difficult to define a so-called typical American family. In years past, most American families readily consisted of a husband, wife and children. By contrast, today's families may include a husband his third wife and several step children and half siblings. In most cases, the more complex a family's structure, the more confusing and complex the estate planning process can become. For these reasons, individuals in a blended family would be wise to seek the advice and assistance of an estate planning attorney when trying to provide for a current spouse, biological children and step-children.
In most cases, estate planning goals for a blended family can be accomplished through a will, one or more trusts and beneficiary designations. For example, a spouse can use a will to leave assets to a surviving spouse as well as living children and step-children. It's important to note, however, that problems can occur when assets are left only to a surviving spouse with the understanding that, upon that spouse's death, any remaining assets will pass to children and step-children. A surviving spouse may decide to change his or her will or may require extended long-term care, thereby leaving children and step-children with no or a very nominal inheritance.
For these reasons, individuals who want to provide financially for children and step-children are often advised to do so using a trust. Trusts can be set up to account for an individual's unique circumstances. For example, a trust may include certain conditions that must be met prior to the assets in a trust being released. This type of trust is often used by parents who want to help protect the assets of a child who may have debt or substance abuse problems. Additionally, if a child is receiving federal assistance, a trust can be set up to provide for the child while also protecting his or her eligibility.
For assets held in retirement and investment accounts, inheritance goals can be accomplished via beneficiary designations. When doing so, it's important to ensure that all beneficiary designations are up to date and that such designations are in line with an individual's will. In cases where discrepancies exist between a will and a beneficiary designation, the individual named as a beneficiary will receive the assets.
Source: Appleton Post-Crescent, "Estate planning for blended families can get complicated," Carissa Giebel