Estate planning for blended families is like playing chess in three dimensions: even those who are very good at chess can struggle with so many moving parts in so many dimensions. Preparing an estate plan requires careful consideration of family dynamics, and those are multiplied in blended families. This is another reason why estate plans need to be tailored for each family’s circumstances, as described in the article “Blended families have unique considerations in estate planning” from The News Enterprise.
That may be an idealistic portrayal, but there is some truth to it. It is no longer unusual for families to engage in estate litigation, according to The Northside Sun’s article “Do You Have a Will or a Trust? Why?” Many families who have estate plans incorporate trusts to ensure that their directions are followed.
Here’s a scenario that happens often. A man receives an inheritance, and he decides to use it to purchase the family home outright. His wife has signed a quitclaim deed to put the property into her husband’s trust. The understanding was that if the husband died before the wife, she would be permitted to stay in the home until her own death. The problem, says The Washington Post in this recent article “Make sure you and your spouse are on same page on who will inherit your home,” is that the husband never signed the living trust.
The story never really focuses on why Cinderella is placed in such a dire position in the first place. However, The National Law Review article titled “A Cautionary Fairy-Tale–If Only Cinderella’s Father Had An Estate Plan” does. It starts with a light-hearted tone, but the details quickly move to how many different ways that this family situation could have been prevented with proper estate planning.
To refresh your memory: Cinderella’s mother died, her father remarried and then he died. She is basically a slave to her evil stepmother and stepsisters, in her own home.
Let’s start with what would happen, if there had been no estate plan. If the family lived in Mississippi, half of her father’s estate would go to her stepmother, and half of the estate would be given to Cinderella. As a minor, her half of the estate would be placed in an UTMA account–Uniform Transfers to Minors Act. There would be a court-appointed custodian, who would be required to use these funds for her health, education, maintenance and support. The court would have likely appointed the Evil Stepmother, who would not likely have complied with the guidelines. A second option would have been for the money to be placed in a trust for Cinderella’s benefit, but the Evil Stepmother would likely have been named a trustee, and that would not have worked out well either.
What Cinderella’s father should have done, was to create a Revocable Living Trust Agreement, stating that certain assets are the separate property of the father (Schedule A), that certain assets are the property of the Evil Stepmother (Schedule B) and that certain assets are community property of the father and the Evil Stepmother (Schedule C).
A neutral successor trustee would have been named—a friend, fiduciary, corporate trustee or perhaps the Fairy Godmother—to oversee the trust. At the death of the father, the trust should have directed that the trust be divided into two subtrusts, known as an A/B split trust.
The Survivor’s Trust (Trust A) would have gathered all the Evil Stepmother’s separate property and one half of the value of the community property assets. Trust B (The Decedent’s Trust) would have all of the father’s separate property, as well as half the value of the community property assets. The trust could have been structured, so that the Evil Stepmother could use the Survivor’s Trust assets as she wanted and could only receive income, if the assets to the Survivor’s Trusts were depleted.
The neutral successor trustee would either work with the Evil Stepmother or make sure that Cinderella’s share of the Decedent’s Trust was not being improperly depleted. At the death of the Evil Stepmother, the assets in the Decedent’s Trust would go to Cinderella.
Cinderella’s father could have also taken out a large life insurance policy to ensure that she was cared for, with the proceeds to be distributed to an UTMA account, with a neutral custodian or to a support trust with a neutral trustee.
The only way Cinderella could have recovered any assets would have been through litigation, which is the likely way this story would have turned out, if it happened today. It’s not ideal, but if a child has been left with nothing but an Evil Stepmother and two nasty stepsisters, a lawsuit is a worthwhile effort to recover some assets. Assuming that the Evil Stepmother either adopted Cinderella or was appointed her guardian by the court, there would be a fiduciary obligation to protect her, and an accounting of assets at the time of her father’s death would have been prepared.
Estate planning would have preempted the story of Cinderella. It does serve as a clear example of what can happen with no estate plan in place. Whether your blended family enjoys a great relationship or not, have your estate plan created, so that if things turn wicked, your beloved children will be protected.
Reference: The National Law Review (Jan. 16, 2019) “A Cautionary Fairy-Tale–If Only Cinderella’s Father Had An Estate Plan”
The ways that children of a first marriage can contest a will fall into several scenarios. However, in order to do so, a person must have “standing.” Typically, a person has standing in two situations, explains nj.com in its recent article, “Can children from a first marriage contest a will?”
One way is when the individual is the decedent’s heir at law and would inherit under the laws of intestacy if the will were declared invalid. Another way a person could have standing, is if there were a prior will in which the person is a named beneficiary, and the prior will would be reinstated, if the subsequent will were set aside.
For example, in Mississippi, probate laws take blended families into consideration. If a person dies without a will and has descendants, like children or grandchildren who are not descendants of the surviving spouse, then several things would happen. The surviving spouse would inherit a child’s share of the estate. The descendants from outside the marriage would then inherit the remainder of the estate in equal shares.
Let’s say George and Gracie were married and had baby Benny. After George and Gracie divorce, George marries Phyllis. If George dies intestate—without a will—then Benny would inherit one-half of his estate. If George dies with a will, Benny has standing to challenge the validity of the will.
As a practical matter, Benny should only challenge the will, if he’d stand to inherit more under intestacy than under the will, and he has a valid challenge justifying that the will be set aside.
The four most common challenges to a will are lack of capacity, improper execution, fraud and undue influence/duress.
It’s not uncommon for will contests to be successful. However, it really depends on the facts and circumstances of each specific case. For example, Benny would have a much tougher time proving undue influence, if John and Phyllis were similar in age and married for 30 years prior to George’s death, than if Phyllis was 50 years younger than George, and he had some level of dementia.
Reference: nj.com (December 11, 2018) “Can children from a first marriage contest a will?”