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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Current Trends - Blended Families - Episode 101



Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another Legal Tea episode today, episode one hundred and one! Today’s topic is a current trend … on this type of episode, we dive into something going on in the current time or that I’ve stumbled across on the news or social media, that is pertinent to my little estate and elder law world. Well, today’s episode is going to be a more-and-more popular family setup called “blended families.” I was inspired to write this episode because I stumbled upon an article hilariously and perfectly titled, “Comparing Estate Planning: ‘Leave it to Beaver’ vs. ‘Modern Family’.” The article by John Goralka is linked in the source links for this episode – and I think John wins an award for coming up with an awesome article title, right?! Anyway, so before we dive into the substance for this episode, let’s make sure we understand Leave it to Beaver and Modern Family – because my younger Legal Tea Listeners may not know Leave it to Beaver very well … and my older Legal Tea Listeners may not know the show, Modern Family, very well.

So, Leave it to Beaver – oh, the Cleavers! We had Ward and June Cleaver, the parents, and Wally and Theodore, Ward and June’s kiddos. Theodore, specifically, is really “who” Beaver is – and who the show is about and as Wikipedia explains it, “The show is built around young Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver and the trouble he gets himself into while navigating an often-incomprehensible, sometimes illogical world.” The Cleavers were your every-day family; still married, kiddos were fine (all things considered), and as John’s article notes, “The estate planning goals and challenges for families like the Cleavers are often less complex than those of the blended family today.” I’d agree with that – while even Cleaver-like families still have to navigate options around avoiding probate and gaining asset protecting against long-term care, their family setup, their family dynamic often requires less conversation around “the people.” As my husband, who as many know is also an estate/elder law attorney, estate planning is not complicated; it’s the people in an estate plan that often make it complicated. That is so true.

And then, let’s shift to Modern Family, the show. The patriarch in Modern Family, a guy named Jay Pritchett. So, Jay has two children, Claire and Mitchell, and Jay, the patriarch, married a significantly younger woman, Gloria. I love Gloria in the show! She’s a feisty Colombian woman, and her and Jay’s exchanges in the show crack me up. Anyway, so Jay and Gloria together have one child, who goes by Joe. Gloria also has a child from a prior marriage, who goes by Manny. Also, of note, Jay’s son, Mitchell, is married to a guy named Cameron and together, they adopted Lily and Rexford. So between, all these people, this show, Modern Family, really beautifully exemplifies more modern-day families … involving stepchildren, blended families, and same-sex marriages.

As John’s article notes, families today are looking more-and-more like Jay’s family setup in Modern Family show (at least in some way). Would an estate plan for the Cleaver family work for Jay’s family? Very, very, very likely not. Now, before I go on, I want to note … Are there still Cleaver-like families out there? Sure. I’d consider my family a Cleaver-like family, honestly. My parents are still married. They had my sister and I; we’re both responsible humans and good kids. Nothing too unique with us. But, in my experience as an estate attorney, there sure are a lot (if not more) families like on Modern Family, where something requires a little more consideration and thought when doing estate planning. And honestly, that’s what makes me job fun, creative, and keeps me on my toes. If everyone’s family dynamic and setup was the exact same, I’d get bored really fast!

Like John referenced in his article and like I said a second ago, families nowadays often resemble Jay’s family setup in Modern Family – and because of that, Jay’s estate plan is likely could to look different than, say, Ward and June Cleaver’s estate plan. For example, John notes, “How would Jay know that his kids would inherit after his death? Could Gloria change the beneficiaries after Jay’s death? How could Gloria be sure that Manny is provided for? Claire works in Jay’s business, while Mitchell is a practicing attorney. Should Claire receive the business and Mitchell receive other assets or insurance proceeds to balance the inheritance?” These are all VERY good questions and topics to differentiate Jay’s family estate plan compared to the Cleavers!

By far, one of the biggest difference between the Cleavers in Leave it to Beaver and Jay’s family in Modern Family is the family setup – often, Jay’s family would be referred to as a “blended family.” So, today, since it’s a current trends episode and in my experience and in my law firm, I’m seeing more-and-more blended families, I figured it’d be a great time to do an episode here on Legal Tea on blended families … and things for blended families to consider when embarking on an estate planning venture. Let’s dive in, Legal Tea Listeners!

Now, if I had to list out the top 3 things I hear blended families reference in a meeting as a concern or as a goal, they would be:

1. Making sure that at the first passing, the surviving spouse does not yank out the deceased spouse’s children or beneficiaries (or maybe a better/easier way to say this one – is that the surviving spouse can’t really change much of the estate plan after the first passes away);

2. Making sure that at the first passing, if they (as in the spouses) have actually kept their assets relatively separate (I see this often in later-in-life marriages), that the kids/beneficiaries of the deceased spouse do not kick the surviving spouse out of the house; and/or

3. Finally, simply making sure that because of the blended family, the kids/beneficiaries have an estate plan that is spelled out, ideally to make things easier, and ideally to lessen the risk of any of them fighting with one another.

There are of course many other considerations in estate planning for blended families, but in my experience, those three are the most popular things I hear from blended families on what they want to accomplish when I ask about their goals for estate planning. Usually, at least one of those three are stated – if not 2 or all 3! So, I say we briefly discuss all three. They’re all three super important.

So first was … Making sure that at the first passing, the surviving spouse does not yank out the deceased spouse’s children or beneficiaries (or like I said, maybe a better/easier way to say this is that the surviving spouse can’t really change much of the estate plan after the first passes away. Now, this is seriously a legitimate concern and if I had to give an answer that was short and sweet, it would be this: Making sure that nothing like that happens is going to require more estate planning than “just” a Last Will and Testament. Here’s why: If you leave your spouse as beneficiary on assets and/or make the spouse the joint owner of assets, those assets are going to be totally the surviving spouse’s at first passing. That happens legally by default – it’s not the Will that is making that happen; it’s because joint assets and beneficiary designations trump a Will (there are a few exceptions, but not too many). So, a Trust is commonly used to prevent changes because with a Trust, you often make the Trust the owner of the asset or the beneficiary of the asset – then at the first passing, the trust controls and can dictate something like, “At the first passing, the survivor shall not have the authority to make amendments to the trust….” Etc. etc. So, if this is a goal, be sure to talk to an estate planning attorney – because a Will is probably not going to be sufficient, my friends.

Moving on to the second consideration … it was making sure that at the first passing, if they (as in the spouses) have actually kept their assets relatively separate (like I said, I most often see this often in later-in-life marriages), that the kids/beneficiaries of the deceased spouse do not kick the surviving spouse out of the house. Much like the last consideration, this can easily be accomplished by giving the surviving spouse what is called a “right to reside” in the property – and this can be done through the Will or a Trust. Though, with a Will, it’s likely going to require probate to enforce the provision, so oftentimes, a Trust is what gets used to give the spouse the legal authority to reside in the property, spell out who-is-paying-what, and provisions around when the authority to reside extinguishes (like the surviving spouse may want to move out; or pass away, etc.). Though, do know this is possible through a Will or Trust. Again, just use a good estate planning attorney to assist in this!

Lastly, the third consideration I mentioned was … quite simply, making sure that because of the blended family, the kids/beneficiaries have an estate plan that is spelled out, ideally to make things easier, and ideally to lessen the risk of any of them fighting with one another. Sounds easy enough, right? Ha! Well, here’s the theme for today—can it be done through a Will and a deep understanding/setup of assets? Sure, maybe, probably. (Do you like that uncertainty?) Well, that uncertainty goes away with a Trust. Hear me loud and clear, I’m not a trust mill. My firm is not a trust mill, but what a trust does gain you is LOTS of options and LOTS of benefits that are often unattainable through a Will or really hard to attain without a Trust. So, my message on this consideration is that the beautiful thing about Trusts is you can spell out every-single-step on what happens at the first passing, the second passing, and who gets what in what manner … and oh! We can put an awesome no-contest clause so if any of them start fighting, they’re in trouble. There are so many possibilities with estate planning.

One super quick thing before I wrap up, before you head to your estate planning attorney appointment if you’re a blended family, have the difficult conversations before the meeting – put some thought into “what” you want to see. We, estate planning attorneys, have A LOT of tools to support what you want to see happen – but we don’t know your family, we don’t know your spouse, and we don’t know what you really want; that’s got to be you that decides. And sometimes, that’s really hard. I know it is.

Alrighty, I’m out of time, friends, so let’s wrap this episode up -- next week’s topic is on estate planning of the rich and the famous – on that episode, we’re going to dive into what happened estate-wise following the passing of the SUPER famous singer, Tina Turner, which will be a nice follow-up to this episode because guess what? She was part of a blended family. I’m telling you – it’s more and- more “normal” now. So yeah - We will dive into Tina Turner’s Estate next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Talk to you then and stay well!


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