Families have changed, but the need to protect wealth and build legacies remains.
We’ve gone from “Leave it to Beaver” to “The Brady Bunch” to “Modern Family.” Our favorite TV shows reflect the times we live in. Today, 70% of American families fall into the nontraditional category – and for these modern households, the need for comprehensive financial and estate planning is more important than ever.
Also known as blended families, where one or both spouses have children from a previous relationship, these families face complicated financial decisions in order to preserve family harmony. The spouses need to make sure each other is taken care of, and ensure that the children, stepchildren and future children share in the family wealth in a way that feels fair and equitable.
In 40% of new marriages, one or both spouses have been married before.
Source: Pew Research Center
It gets sticky when one spouse wants to provide for the surviving spouse, while also ensuring assets eventually go to his or her children. The survivor spouse may inherit the majority of assets but is under no legal obligation to ensure those assets then pass on to your children later. To avoid this potentially devastating mistake, be sure to make estate planning a priority – even if you’re young.
Children become part of the family in any number of ways – birth, adoption, in vitro, posthumous births – and modern families must account for things people hadn’t even heard of 30 years ago. Posthumous births can happen years after the loss of a loved one. Cryopreservation has made it possible for a child to be born even if one or both parents have already passed away. If you or your spouse has done this or is considering it, you’ll want to think through the potential implications. Who would inherit any embryos, for example, and would any resulting child have a claim on your estate? Addressing these sensitive matters may be uncomfortable, but it’s wholly necessary.
And, assisted reproductive technology allows for surrogates and donors to help you expand your family. However, preemptive measures must be taken to avoid estate complications. Contracts are helpful, but proactive estate planning will ensure everyone understands their role and whether they have a right to lay claim to part of your estate later.
No matter how your family grew, you’ll have to think through how you want the children to inherit. What feels equitable and fair to you? To them? The answers are not always simple. Carefully consider decisions that will affect your biological children, stepchildren, adopted children and anyone else you’d like to inherit your estate or your business. And, as with anything regarding estate planning, document your wishes thoroughly.
Living together without being married raises different challenges. You can’t access spousal and survivor Social Security benefits; you aren’t eligible to transfer or bequeath assets to each other without paying federal or state estate taxes; and you don’t enjoy protected status as a beneficiary when it comes to pensions, retirement accounts and annuities. As a result, partners must be specifically named as beneficiaries so that your longtime love won’t be left out should the unthinkable happen to you.
You also won’t have rights to make health decisions for your significant other or have access to their health insurance, unless their company specifically allows unmarried partners to be covered. While married couples automatically enjoy these rights, you can create something similar to protect your partnership. You just have to jump through a few hoops with the help of trusted advisors.
Whether single, divorced or widowed, being on your own means you’ll face some unique financial challenges, particularly when it comes to deciding who will catch you if you fall. There’s no backup plan if you lose your job or become ill without a caretaker in place. Without children or a spouse, you may not know who should receive your estate, who should be the executor of your will, or who to trust with important decisions should you become incapacitated.
But not knowing doesn’t mean you should do nothing at all. Attention should be paid to your will. If you pass away intestate, or without a will in place, your assets and property may fall to the direction of state statutes and probate courts. If there is no obvious heir, the state could choose related heirs you may not even know.
Start thinking this through now, and decide if you’d prefer to bequeath your estate to particular friends or charities. Decide, too, who you want to benefit from your retirement accounts, and be certain that beneficiary designation forms reflect where you want your assets to go. You can always update your documents later should your life circumstances change.
Of course, no estate or financial plan should be set in stone. And while the planning can be complex, a trusted financial advisor, estate attorney and accountant can work together to offer guidance so that your wishes today will be honored tomorrow.
Sources: Financial Planning; Investing Daily; Michigan State University; Time.com; Barron’s Raymond James financial advisors do not render advice on tax or legal matters. You should discuss any tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional.