Estate Planning with Steps & Exes

Every so often, a story pops up in your news feed about a high-profile family conflict following a celebrity death. Maybe the celebrity died without a will. Maybe the family disagrees with the will. Maybe there’s feuding between the celebrity’s children from an earlier marriage and the current spouse.

Conflicts like these happen all the time—and not just to the rich and famous. They happen to your neighbors. They happen to your friends. They could happen to you if you are not careful.

What can you do to avoid these headaches? We posed this question to Jessica Greene, a Certified Elder Law Attorney at Walters & Galloway, PLLC, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Jessica has seen estate-planning blunders tie assets up in court for years, allow taxes and legal fees to eat up a chunk of an estate, and give inheritances to people who wouldn’t have received them if the planning had been done properly.

Ex-spouses and blended family situations can be complicated, which makes it important to get advice from a qualified estate planning attorney. Using generic documents from an online legal document provider can lead to big trouble later. “Estate planning mistakes can end up punishing your beneficiaries long after you’re gone,” Jessica said.

Not having a will, failing to add or remove beneficiaries from your estate plan, not telling your family where your estate planning documents are located, not putting wishes in writing, and failing to fund a trust are common estate planning mistakes that can be exponentially worse if your family situation is complicated.

Jessica says that multiple marriages create many of the concerns she sees in her office. In her ten years of practice, she has seen a growing number of clients where both spouses have been married at least once before, and both have children from those earlier marriages. “Right now, they may both agree in their wills that they're going to include each other's children, and everything will be distributed equally,” Jessica explained. “But things can change in an instant. The husband may die and then the wife may decide to redo her will and cut out her late-husband’s children.”

Nothing can destroy fragile family harmony faster than the current spouse getting assets that the children thought were rightfully theirs. “If you want things to turn out in a specific way, you need to create something that cannot be changed,” Jessica said, adding that a trust is the estate planning tool of choice in situations like these. “I've seen people leave everything to their spouse in a trust. When that person dies, the trust becomes an irrevocable trust to their spouse. When the spouse dies, the assets go to the beneficiaries of that trust, which can include children from an earlier marriage.”

If you’ve been married before or you’re married to someone who has, what’s the best thing to do? For Jessica, the solution is simple. “Make sure that your wishes are clear, Jessica advised. “Put everything in writing. Make sure that no one has to read between the lines or guess at your intentions. If you’re concerned about future changes, put your wishes out there in an irrevocable way.”

Attorneys at Life Care Planning Law Firms are skilled at creating estate plans that achieve their intended goals. Find a Life Care Planning Law Firm near you.