Smart estate planning for blended marriages
✔ Talk it out: Initiate a family conversion.
✔ Plan it out: Have a solid estate plan in place.
✔ Spell it out: Consider wills, trusts, and taxes.
Second chances can bring a lot of joy, particularly when it comes to getting remarried. But tying the knot again can present some challenges, especially when it comes to planning how your estate plan provides financial support for “blended family” members from different marriages.
Each spouse may have brought different assets into the marriage and may have different objectives when it comes to passing wealth among children from different marriages or to each other. However, if you discuss these matters openly as a couple, consult estate planning professionals, and express your intentions clearly through legal documents, you’ll likely be able to create a plan that addresses the needs of your blended family.
Talk it out: Initiate a family conversation.
Before putting your estate plan in writing, talk with your spouse about your goals, how you hope to provide for each other, and to what extent you want to leave assets to your children. “Clarity up front is absolutely critical,” says Rodney Weaver, estate planning specialist at Fidelity. Because the conversation could be uncomfortable, consider including a trusted financial adviser or estate planning attorney “to facilitate the conversation and take the emotion out of it,” says Weaver. Some topics to cover include:
- Financial or other contractual obligations you may have with former spouses through a divorce agreement
- Long-term goals, including how you want to support each other and what you may hope to provide for your children (biological and step) or other family members
- Guardianship issues, particularly when there may be young children or former spouses in the picture
Review the plans from previous marriages.
Review any plans you had in place from any previous marriages, including wills, trusts, and beneficiary designations, “to understand how any of these arrangements might affect your plans moving forward,” advises Weaver. For example, if you were contractually obligated through a previous divorce to keep your ex-spouse as beneficiary of a retirement account, you may not be able to update the beneficiary designation to your current spouse.
Put your goals and wishes on the table.
Put all your intentions and goals on the table, “even if you’re making tough decisions, like allocating assets differently from one set of children to another,” says Weaver. Without clear communication, you risk heartache. For example, imagine a spouse who passes away and leaves everything to her children from a first marriage, unbeknownst to her surviving spouse, who may not have enough income on which to live.
Plan it out: Have a solid estate plan in place.
Once you’re clear on your long-term planning goals, look at your assets and property to determine what’s "yours," "mine," and "ours." For a blended family, this may be somewhat daunting. But it’s an important part of estate planning, because the way assets and property are held in ownership now can directly affect how they may be distributed in the future.
Together or separate
How do you decide whether to commingle or separate marital assets? While it’s a very personal choice, considering several factors could help you find clarity:
- What you brought in. Often couples who come to a marriage with significantly different amounts of wealth —like inheritances, college accounts, or trusts earmarked for children from a previous marriage —will choose to keep these assets separate. Some couples then choose to commingle whatever they earn together.
Children could also play a big role in whether you commingle or separate your assets. “Sometimes, your plans revolve more around who you bring into the marriage than how much,” says Weaver. Spouses who have children from a previous marriage often feel strongly about setting aside assets just for them.
- Your age. Weaver notes that younger couples tend to commingle their assets more because they often come into the marriage more or less on an equal footing.
- Marital property laws in your state. Be sure you understand the consequences of any state laws governing the way you hold assets. What if you live in a community property state? “While property acquired by either spouse prior to marriage—or an inheritance or gift received during the marriage—may retain its character as separate property,” says Weaver, “any income or assets that can’t be identified as separate property are likely to be considered equally owned as community property of the couple.”
The way you own and register accounts in your blended family can go a long way toward clarifying your intentions and avoiding probate—the expensive, time-consuming, and very public process of administering an estate. For example, accounts owned as “joint tenants with right of survivorship” or “transfer on death” make the owner’s intentions clear that in both cases the assets go directly to a party named on the account.
- Joint tenants with right of survivorship passes the assets directly to the surviving account owner.
- Transfer on death passes the assets directly to the party named as beneficiary.
- Read Viewpoints: Estate plan pitfalls to avoid.
Check your Social Security benefits.
While you might be entitled to Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work record, that could change upon remarriage.
- Read Viewpoints: "How to get the most from Social Security," and Security Retirement Planner: Benefits For Your Divorced Spouse.
Be sure to review and, if necessary, update all your beneficiary designations on retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and so on. If you don’t, warns Weaver, “Your assets could end up going to your ex-spouse when your intent was for them to support your current family.” Also, think carefully about whom you choose as beneficiary. You might automatically name only your new spouse, but when you die, your spouse can name anyone he or she wants as the new beneficiary, possibly bypassing your children altogether.
Take similar precautions with property. The way a home is owned could affect how it passes upon death—if the home is not transferred as intended, unintended hardship could be created for a family, who now may be homeless. For example, if you want your new spouse and your children to benefit from the proceeds of your house, make sure your legal documents reflect these intentions. If properly established, certain types of trusts, discussed below, can help you transfer property in line with your wishes.
Spell it out: Consider wills, trusts, and taxes.
What you decide to leave to your spouse and children from your present and previous marriages is very personal. Putting it all in writing is essential. “Even if what you plan seems to favor some blended family members over others, spell out every detail in your legal documents,” says Weaver. “That’s the best way to avoid potential disputes.”
Use wills, or even “an instruction letter referenced in a will,” to be very specific, says Weaver, even for seemingly small things like dividing up personal property. “Leaving your children to decide who receives something like a college ring could result in conflict among family members,” he adds.
As an integral part of a carefully crafted estate plan, a trust holds assets on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries and can specify exactly how and when the assets pass to the beneficiaries. For a blended family, trusts not only help facilitate the disposition of assets by detailing who gets what, but they can also "last for years— through the surviving spouse’s lifetime, the kids’ lifetimes, and for multiple generations," explains Weaver. What’s more, because trusts tend to avoid probate, beneficiaries may receive assets more quickly than if the assets are transferred through a will.
For this reason, many parents use trusts to segregate assets for children from a previous marriage even before getting remarried. A will can even be drafted to provide for the “pouring of assets into two separate trusts— one for children from your previous marriage and one for your spouse or children from your current marriage,” says Weaver.
For blended families, certain types of properly established trusts can provide financial support for your spouse and still make sure something is left for your children. For example:
- Credit shelter trusts (CSTs)/bypass trusts can provide income to the surviving spouse, while preserving the deceased spouse's control over the remainder beneficiaries, who may include children from a previous marriage.
- A qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trust can provide income and even principal (if needed) for a surviving spouse, while preserving the underlying assets and controlling how they are distributed to children from a previous marriage, or to other beneficiaries.
- An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) holds a life insurance policy (on the insured’s life) and provides immediate benefits to the named beneficiaries (who may be the insured's current spouse or children from a previous marriage) when the insured dies, without the necessity of passing through probate.
- Read Viewpoints: Can life insurance help your estate plan? and "Six reasons you should consider a trust."
Consider the tax consequences.
Estate planning in subsequent marriages often involves balancing control over assets and tax consequences. Consider taking full advantage of your gift and estate tax exclusion, which lets you make gifts during your life or make transfers at death without paying federal gift or estate tax up to an aggregate of $10.98 million. Portability is a feature of the federal estate tax system that lets a surviving spouse use the deceased spousal unused exclusion (DSUE) amount of his or her deceased spouse. This means that if you’re the surviving spouse, under current law, you could potentially pass assets of up to $10.98 million when you die, depending on your own gifting strategies during your lifetime.
But there’s a catch: Only your last deceased spouse’s unused exclusion amount is portable. That’s an issue if your previous spouse passes away and then you remarry. If your new spouse dies before you do, he or she becomes your “last” deceased spouse and you can no longer use any unused exemption amounts from your prior spouse. Your attorney or tax adviser can help you assess planning options to help mitigate the impact that the loss of this exclusion may have.
Estate planning for second families requires a mix of many things—candor, communication, and very carefully crafted legal documents. Still, “While there can be some discomfort in talking about and making your estate plan,” says Weaver, “there is great comfort in having a plan in place.”