You’re likely familiar with the fable of Cinderella. The story is simple, a young girl’s mother dies and her father later decides to remarry. He marries a lady with her own daughters, and then later dies. The stepmother and stepsisters rename the girl Cinderella, treat her as an indentured servant, and generally are very cruel to her. The effect of the family change is likely one that would cut out Cinderella from any inheritance from her father, and, given the general cruelness of the stepmother, we expect that there will be no inheritance from her, either. As the story continues, after an encounter with a fairy Godmother, Cinderella is eventually rescued from this misery and dances with the Prince at the ball.
From this fable, and other literary ones in its progeny, stepmothers are often given a bad reputation. But it’s not always like that. There are countless families today where the stepparent is not evil and instead the stepmom or stepdad loves and respects the stepchildren as their own child, with no favoritism or special treatment based on whether the child is the parent’s offspring, or the child of their spouse. Certainly, many blended families have loving relationships between stepchildren and stepparents where respect and care for each other’s well-being rules the day.
Importantly, a hidden problem for some blended families involves inheritances and the lack of proper estate planning. To demonstrate the point, let’s look at the fictional Smith family. Jane Smith marries John, who had a very young daughter, Anna, from a prior relationship. Jane raises Anna as her own child, and they had a close relationship, though Jane never legally adopted Anna. Unfortunately, John died in a car crash when Anna was a little older, and John’s Will left everything to Jane. Years later, Jane died without a Will.
In Georgia, if you die without a Will, the state’s intestate succession laws will determine where your assets are distributed. Without getting into too much detail, if you have a spouse and no children, the spouse will be the sole heir. If you have a spouse and children, then they will all share your estate, provided that the spouse gets at least 1/3 of the estate. But the catch here is in how children are defined. For intestate succession, stepchildren are not considered to be children for inheritance purposes; stepchildren are not natural heirs under the law. So, in the case of Jane’s death, Anna will not inherit from Jane, her stepmom. Instead, Jane’s estate will be distributed to her next of kin in accordance with Georgia law, as she had no spouse and no children of her own through birth or adoption.
In our fact pattern, this outcome is probably not what Jane would have wanted, given her close relationship with Anna. But it’s the plan Jane has by default pursuant to state law, since she did not do her own planning. When you don’t do your own planning, you are stuck with the state’s default plan. For more on Georgia’s intestate succession law, look at O.C.G.A. 53-2-1.
Let’s also consider another version of this story. Suppose that it was more of a Brady Bunch type blended family, with both John and Jane getting married after each of them had a child or children from previous relationships. Here, John had Anna and Jane had two boys, Zach and Tom. Then, let’s pick up at the same place – John dies in a car wreck, with a Will that left everything to Jane. Years later, Jane dies, but she has a Will. Jane’s Will states that all of her assets are left to her children, and the term “children” is not specifically defined in her Will in such a way to include Anna. As such, it will likely be determined that Jane’s beneficiaries are only Zach and Tom, as they are her only children by birth or adoption. Anna, the stepchild, is out with no inheritance. Perhaps that’s not at all what Jane would have wanted, because she loved and treated Anna as her own daughter throughout their relationship. Here, there was no evil intent and Jane was not intending to play the part of the wicked stepmother. But, Jane cut corners, trying to complete her Will with a fill-in-the-blank form from an office supply store or from some impersonal online service instead of working with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that her wishes were properly documented and could then be carried out after her death.
The key takeaway for blended families is this: If you want to provide for stepchildren after you die, you must be intentional about it and do so through a well written Will or Trust. If you do not so, your stepchildren will be out of an inheritance as Cinderella was, and the odds of a fairy Godmother appearing with a magic wand to save the day is very small.
If you need help with estate planning for your blended family, we invite you to contact us to discuss your situation.