Stepchildren and Inheritance Rights

Blended families, those that are joined families after a second marriage, are becoming more commonplace. It makes sense with single parents and a high divorce rate in the United States. This tends to bring up questions about inheritance rights of both biological and stepchildren.

Without protection of a will or formal adoption, stepchildren can be left without an inheritance. These formal documents in whole or part can lay the foundation for carrying out the wishes of a deceased member. You should never just assume everyone will “play fair” when settling an inheritance. For example, let’s say that a family starts out with three children. Later after a divorce, the children decide that no contact with one of the parents is warranted for whatever reason. That alienated parent decides to marry again to a nice person that has a young son and raises him as his own.

The parent develops a bond with second spouse’s son, and cares for this boy to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, the parent never adopts this boy, nor because of his age, didn’t think about creating a will. If the spouse died suddenly, half of his estate is passed on to the three previous marriage’s children who that parent hasn’t had contact with for years – maybe tens of years. Depending on assets, beneficiary designation and ownership forms, the second spouse may not and loved stepson would not get a dime.

It’s a scary scenario, but legally stepchildren do not have the same inheritance rights as biological and adopted children. If a stepparent wants to leave a stepchild any part of their estate, they must give specific directions of doing so in a will. Otherwise, the stepchild could get nothing, even if it is against the stepparent’s wishes.

If a stepparent dies without creating a will, in most cases state laws govern which family members inherit the estate. While state laws may vary widely, the assets are generally passed down to:

  • the surviving spouse
  • biological and adopted children
  • biological and adopted grandchildren
  • and, in some cases, the deceased’s parents.

Most often, if the deceased doesn’t have a living spouse or biological or adopted children, their inheritance would most likely go to their surviving parents and not their stepchildren, even if they have a closer connection to their stepchildren. This can not only cause problems for the stepchildren, but also tax and long-term care planning issues for the surviving parents.

At Carlson & Burnett, we have a team of attorneys who specialize in Long-Term care planning. We subscribe to the belief that “What’s in the family, should stay in the family!” Contact our attorneys at Carlson & Burnett to schedule a consultation at (402) 810-8611.

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