Protecting Stepchildren and Others With Estate Planning

Blended families are extremely common today. Around 50% of families in America include remarried or recoupled individuals, many with children from previous relationships. However, the law doesn’t always protect the interests of those children in the same way it does the interests of biological children, especially when it comes to matters of intestacy.

For example, stepchildren, foster children, and children who are in the adoption system all have different inheritance rights than the biological or legally adopted children of an individual. If you want to provide for children in a blended family once you’re gone, you may need to plan for estate administration now and use tools such as trusts to ensure your assets go to the beneficiaries you choose.

Stepchildren Don’t Have Inheritance Rights

Intestacy laws in Massachusetts don’t cover rights for stepchildren. They start with rights for the surviving spouse. If there is no surviving spouse, or if all assets don’t go to the surviving spouse, Massachusetts law covers individuals who survive the decedent who are not the surviving spouse. They are listed as:

  • The decedent’s descendants, meaning biological or legal children, grandchildren, or other descendants of the person who passed away
  • The surviving parents of the decedent
  • The descendants of the person’s parents, if there is no surviving parent

So, consider a situation in which a man and his second wife are both killed. He has a stepchild from that marriage but no other children. He does not have surviving parents, but his brother is alive. In this case, if there is no estate planning beforehand, the intestacy laws of Massachusetts might mean that the assets of the man’s estate go to the brother and not to the stepchild.

How Can You Leave Assets for Stepchildren?

The fact that stepchildren don’t have inheritance rights in Massachusetts doesn’t mean that you can’t leave assets for them. It means that if you do nothing to plan for this eventuality, they will have no rights according to the law. Instead, you must take action early to ensure your assets are managed and distributed as you desire.

You can do this via estate planning. Some options for ensuring your stepchildren can inherit the assets you want them to inherit include leaving a will that names them as beneficiaries or creating a trust that includes them as beneficiaries.

Protecting Inheritance for Your Children

Blended families and the increased likelihood of divorce and remarriage create another important consideration for those who are looking to protect familial wealth and pass down legacy assets to descendants. In many cases, you may want to protect the assets you leave your family from claims by their current or future spouses. Should your children experience a divorce, without proper planning, the gift you leave (or at least half of it) will be at risk of ending up with an ex-in-law, instead of with your children and grandchildren.

Another common problem occurs when a couple marries and each of them has children from a prior marriage.  When one spouse dies, everything is usually left to the surviving spouse by will or joint property. When the surviving spouse dies, it is common for everything to be left to the children of the surviving spouse, excluding the children of the first spouse to die. This problem can be fixed through the use of trusts combined with a Contract to Plan, where each spouse promises to leave an agreed upon portion of the estate to the children of the other spouse. A Contract to Plan is specifically authorized by statute in Massachusetts.

In another example, imagine a scenario where a woman has two married children. Each of these children has two children, so the woman has four grandchildren. If she plans to simply leave assets directly to her two children, those assets could be up for grabs in a future divorce or be divided among future spouses and stepchildren as well as the woman’s grandchildren.

If the woman wants to ensure a legacy for her grandchildren despite any remarriage situations that may come up, there are options for doing so. She might create a trust that does not use outright distribution, such as an asset protection trust or a multi-generational trust. In this case, the assets in the trust are owned by the trust and do not transfer to her adult children. That means those assets would not be part of her adult children’s estates and could not then be left in a will or via other means to stepchildren or others if the woman named only her grandchildren as the trust’s beneficiaries.

How Adoption Can Impact Inheritance Rights

Adoption can impact inheritance rights because it creates a new legal relationship between parents and children. Legally adopted children do have inheritance rights from their adoptive parents. However, children who have been adopted do not have any inheritance rights related to their biological parents. Children who are in foster care do not have inheritance rights from their foster parents. Children whose adoption decree has not been issued do not have inheritance rights from their adoptive parents.

Depending on your situation, you might want to consider your relationship to the children in your life and how you support them currently. If they are not your biological children and you haven’t yet finalized an adoption—but you know you want to provide for them even if you’re no longer around—you may need to engage in estate planning.

Work With an Estate Lawyer to Understand Your Options

Even if you only have biological children in your life you want to provide for after you’re gone, estate and legacy planning can be an important step. Whether you want to protect dependent minor children via tools such as guardianships and conservatorships or you want to protect your legacy for future generations via trusts, working with an experienced estate planning lawyer can be a good idea.

At the Law Offices of Boyd & Boyd, P.C., we can help you plan ahead to protect your wealth legacy while leaving assets for the benefit of the heirs you choose. We’ll work with you to understand your goals now and for the future and create trusts and other tools that support those objectives. We can also help you manage your estate and planning process throughout your life to account for any changes that might come up, such as births, marriages, divorces, and adoptions. To find out more about how we can help, give us a call at 508-444-9688.