March 10, 2015
For those who love their stepchildren as their own, it may come as a surprise that this bond isn’t enough when it comes to estate planning in California. Because of the laws of inheritance, stepchildren do not automatically inherit when a stepparent dies.
Let’s say you’re creating your estate plan, and you stipulate that your estate should be divided equally among your children. Although you count your stepchildren as your own, the courts will only include your biological or adopted children, completely ignoring any claim from stepchildren. In these cases, it’s nice to think that the biological children would share, but it’s definitely not a foregone conclusion. Even if they did, there would be additional tax implications for all involved.
On the other hand, if you don’t have any biological children, your lawyer will tell you that your stepchildren will still not have any rights to your estate. Instead, it would pass to your spouse, your parents, your siblings, or even your cousins, rather than to the young people you helped raise.
Should you wish for your stepchildren to receive an inheritance, you must make your wishes clearly, and legally, known. The most common way to do this would be to have a lawyer draw up a will (or trust) that outlines exactly what you want to happen with your estate. The document will need to be witnessed, and your attorney may advise you to take other precautions to make sure the will holds up when the time comes.
Another approach to estate planning for stepchildren would be to create a trust that names them as the beneficiaries. Trusts can be funded in a number of ways, such as with savings or assets; or they can be funded through life insurance. Various accounts, such as bank accounts, insurance policies, or IRAs can also be left specifically to stepchildren as long as the stepchildren are named as beneficiaries.
Adopted children do not face the same difficulties as stepchildren, as they are treated just like biological children according to the laws of succession. Children born outside of marriage may have to prove that they are descendants of the person who has passed away if there is no mention of them in a will.
Finally, this information should be kept in mind when your biological children are someone else’s stepchildren. Should you get remarried and then pass away, your estate may go directly to your spouse, not your children. When he or she passes, everything goes to his or her biological children. If you haven’t worked with a will lawyer to prepare for this, your children’s inheritance would legally go to their stepsiblings.
Blended families are common, but the laws of succession are often misunderstood. If you are a stepparent or your children have a stepparent, it is a good idea to talk to a lawyer to make sure everyone’s interests are considered.