Why Parents with Children from First and Second Marriages Should Make an Estate Plan
One of the most disturbing things I witness as an estate planning attorney is the pain parents cause when they fail to make an estate plan that considers all their children. This happens frequently when parents have children from more than one marriage or relationship.
Unfortunately for many children, the parentís new spouse or partner typically plays a major role in deciding what is left to each child. Children born from the most recent relationship often receive a more favorable inheritance than the parent's firstborn.
Beatle John Lennon's omission of his son, Julian Lennon, from his last will is one of the most famous examples. No child deserves to be treated the way Lennon treated Julian in his estate plan, which effectively made his younger son, Sean, sole heir to Lennon's fortune. Julian, the firstborn son who was only five years old when his father left, was not even mentioned in John Lennon's will. The strong influence Yoko Ono had over Lennon, and the plans he made for distributing his estate, is a recurring theme in many second marriages.
When a parent has children from more than one marriage or relationship, it is important for the parent to be aware of how those children feel about one another, as well as how each childís relationship with the parent is impacted by the existence of children from another relationship. It is common for children from the first marriage to feel abandoned by the parent who went on to create a second family, regardless of whether they remain involved in each other's lives. Even if the child is well into his adult years and has never expressed these feelings, they probably still exist. Remarried parents may be too busy with their own lives to notice how their older children are affected by the parent's devotion to new offspring or stepchildren. Some of the best insights on the adult child's perspective are available in the Divorce Course Pack Set: Children of Divorce: Stories of Loss and Growth, Second Edition.
Most adult children in blended families eventually learn to cope with their feelings about their half siblings and stepfamilies. However, if their parent dies without leaving them anything, it can deal another huge blow to the childís psyche. When any child is disinherited or the parent leaves his entire estate to his new spouse or partner, it is fairly typical for them to feel bitterness, resentment, anger, and even hatred. But when children from one relationship are passed over for inheritance in favor of children from a subsequent relationship, these feelings are magnified. Children in these circumstances are left with painful questions about their parent's love for them which will remain unanswered.
In some cases, the parent is pressured by the new spouse or partner to favor the children from the couple's relationship. If the couple makes their estate planning documents together, it can get very contentious when one parent tries to carve out something for his children from a prior marriage. In other cases, the parent ends up leaving everything to the new family by default, through intestate succession or non-probate transfers, because the parent did not make an estate plan.
While there are many factors that make it difficult for parents with children from multiple relationships to make an estate plan, parents can and should make an effort to avoid leaving a legacy of hurt and rejection to any of their children. Taking steps to ensure all your children are treated equally may be the best legacy anyone can leave behind. To get started with your estate plan, see Estate Planning for Blended Families: Providing for Your Spouse & Children in a Second Marriage.
Estate Planning for Blended Families by Richard E. Barnes. This book is designed to help parents who have children from a prior relationship, as well as a new spouse and children from a second marriage. This highly recommended guide addresses the unique estate planning concerns faced by parents in a second marriage.
Leaving Inheritance to One Child But Not Another
If you plan to leave money or property to some of your adult children but not all of them, you may want to discuss this with each child who will not receive an inheritance. While adult children may not expect to receive anything from a parentís estate, when they learn a sibling inherited something but they did not, it can be particularly hurtful.
You may have an obvious reason for leaving something to one child and nothing to others. For example, you may have a financially dependent adult child. You may want to provide for your grandchildren by making a bequest to their parent. Another reason parents sometimes leave unequal shares to their heirs is because one child has made personal sacrifices to care for them. If you do not have a legitimate reason to treat your children differently in your estate plan, consider how doing so may affect all your children and others in your family.
If one or more of your children is unlikely to inherit anything from your estate, communication can go a long way toward preventing animosity among your offspring and avoiding feelings of rejection. Talking with your child openly about why you made certain decisions in your estate plan is usually the most effective way of helping them accept your decisions.
If you do not intend to discuss your estate plan with your children but plan to leave an inheritance to some children and not others, you may want to write a letter to some or all of your children explaining your decisions in distributing your property. This is sometimes done in an estate plan letter. If you are not comfortable discussing these issues with your children or are unable to do so, writing an estate plan letter is a good alternative. To avoid creating confusion about the terms of your will or living trust, consult your attorney about how to write an estate plan letter.
If you know you will be unable to leave anything of significant value to one or more of your children, consider gifting a few special items to each child during your lifetime. Giving your child a few of your personal things, such as personal mementos, keepsakes, photos, memorabilia, military honors, jewelry, family heirlooms or antiques, can mean a great deal to your child, even if the items have no market value. If you know your surviving spouse or partner is unlikely to allow any of your property to pass to your children from a prior relationship, making a gift of these types of items ahead of time ensures your child will have something meaningful from you to hold on to after your death. Nothing can change how a child feels when a sibling receives a larger inheritance, especially if the child received nothing. However, giving your child a personal item that means something to you may also mean a lot to your child and help lessen the hurt feelings they may otherwise feel.
For more tips and suggestions, see our free parents estate planning guide. For information on providing for minor children in your estate plan, see our page on children.