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Estate planning is essential to help individuals ensure that their assets will be distributed according to their wishes after their death. This process becomes especially important for those with children from new and previous marriages, as it can be challenging to ensure that all parties are cared for as intended.
In California, the laws surrounding inheritance and community property are complicated, and without careful planning, some children may receive more or less than intended, or be disinherited entirely. In this article, we will explore the importance of estate planning for blended families.
Consider the story of Cinderella, who, after her father’s passing, was left in the care of her loving stepmother―who, as Disney made quite clear, turned quite evil, quite quickly. In this classic fairy tale, underage Cinderella’s inheritance was promptly (and legally) stolen by her stepmother and used to provide exclusively for her own biological daughters.
Cinderella was forced to live as a scullery maid in the palace chimney (hence “cinder”-ella), and survived by the kindness of the palace’s cheerful birds and mice. (And a dim Fairy Godmother, who could turn a pumpkin into a carriage at will but couldn’t be bothered to poof Cinderella her own house.)
This scenario (minus the rodent infestation) is not uncommon in blended families, where children from different marriages may have competing interests when it comes to inheritance.
To avoid situations like Cinderella’s, it is crucial to have a comprehensive written estate plan that addresses the specific needs of each child. This plan should include a will, a trust, and other important documents that detail how assets will be distributed.
In California, community property laws provide that all assets earned from working during a marriage are equally owned by both spouses. In contrast, assets acquired by a spouse before the marriage (or received as a gift or inheritance during marriage) may remain that spouse’s separate property, presuming they are kept separate and not mixed in (“commingled”) with the new marital assets. Assets acquired during the marriage will be considered shared community property. Since the laws of intestacy provide that all community property is inherited by the surviving spouse, without proper estate planning, a surviving spouse may unintentionally disinherit a child from a previous marriage.
We all know the story of The Brady Bunch, a wildly popular TV sitcom from the 1970s (which resurged in awareness in 2020 when we all learned to use Zoom and noticed the similarity of its on-screen grid of smiling photos). Widow Carol Martin, who “was bringing up three very lovely girls” married Mike Brady, a widower who was “busy with three boys of his own.”
Without proper estate planning, Mike’s assets could have been divided equally between his sons and Carol’s daughters, potentially leaving some of his boys with less than he might have intended. The same would have been true of Carol’s assets and her daughters. They might have had “hair of gold, like their mother, (the youngest one in curls)”―but needless to say, that gold don’t spend.
To avoid this scenario, Carol could have, e.g., created a trust that would have ensured that upon her death, all of her assets would be distributed equally among all six children. Or Mike might have specified that his separate pre-marriage property would be divided exclusively among his sons, while his half of the shared community property would be split equally among all six children.
Another common scenario is the case of children from previous marriages being unintentionally disinherited because of a surviving spouse’s subsequent remarriage. In California, if a surviving spouse remarries and does not have an estate plan, the new spouse will be entitled to a portion of the deceased spouse’s estate (yes, even if the deceased spouse’s assets were entirely his or her separate property).
This means that children from the previous marriage may receive less than their parent might have intended to leave them. To avoid this particular scenario, the deceased spouse could have created a written trust that would have ensured that his or her assets would be distributed according to their specific wishes, rather than being subject to general community property laws.
In conclusion, estate planning is essential for blended families who wish to ensure that all children are adequately provided for. In California, the law surrounding inheritance can be complicated, and without careful planning, some children may be unintentionally disinherited. It is important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a comprehensive plan that addresses the specific needs of each child.
By doing so, you can ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes and avoid the type of situations faced by Cinderella and The Brady Bunch. And don’t get me started on Snow White.