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Portfolio > Asset Managers

Dealing with blended family issues

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Given the current trends, the odds suggest that every estate planner will end up working with a large number of blended families.

Half of all first marriages end in divorce, and 75 percent of those divorcees end up remarrying. Among those second marriages, 65 percent will include children from prior marriages, according to research conducted the National Stepfamily Resource Center.

So blended families have become a basic fact of American life. Most estate plans assume a simple, linear movement from generation to generation, but the reality is more complicated.

Here are some strategies every financial advisor needs to know when dealing with blended families:


A blended family usually begins with a divorce. Given the fact that spouses own a great deal of property jointly and are automatically considered the beneficiaries of most wills, accounts and insurance policies, disinheritance ought to be a first step for anyone considering remarriage.

Joint ownership is such a common fact of modern life that divorced people should be very careful about reviewing all the ownerships they might need to disentangle. Following a divorce, an individual should in most cases begin the disinheritance process as soon as possible. This includes not just real estate, but cars and other vehicles, and anything else that might have a title to it.

Beneficiary Designations

A divorce and remarriage should cause anyone with extensive financial holdings to review all of his or her beneficiary designations. A divorced couple will want to review all accounts and policies to make sure the former spouse is no longer named as the beneficiary.

The documents reviewed should include life insurance policies, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, IRAs, and 401(k)s. Make sure your clients are aware that some divorce agreements prohibit some changes to these accounts.

One important factor to keep in mind: Beneficiary designations will override a will if the designations aren’t consistent. It’s not enough to rewrite a will and think that it will take care of all of the client’s revised wishes. Disposing of Special Property

In a new family, it is often the cherished keepsakes rather than the most valuable assets that cause the most trouble. Clients should consider whether to leave a family heirloom to a new spouse instead of to children.

If clients’ ultimate wish is that the heirloom ends up with the child, it will probably easier to make a direct bequest. One popular solution is to use trusts for the assets to be left to a spouse, while bequeathing pieces of property to children directly via a will.

Prenuptial Agreements

Prenuptial agreements may seem slightly distasteful, but for the complicated estates presented by blended families, they can make a lot of sense. Couples who have built up assets earmarked for specific objectives, like college tuition funding, can make sure those goals are safeguarded via a prenup. If it’s too late for a prenup, a second option is a postnuptial agreement.

Testamentary Trusts

Testamentary trusts are commonly used to pass assets to minor children or people with disabilities. These trusts become irrevocable on the death of the first spouse, and can be structured so that the assets remain with the surviving spouse during his or her lifetime.

The assets can then pass to the children after the death of the second spouse. The trust thus provides a way to ensure that the parent who dies first can provide for his or her spouse while still taking care of the children.

Testamentary trusts are generally easy and inexpensive to set up. One important caveat: They won’t necessarily keep assets out of probate.

Reciprocal Wills

A reciprocal will functions like a testamentary trust: It declares that all of a person’s assets go to the spouse, and then to the children after the second spouse passes on. But there are serious drawbacks to this strategy.

The surviving spouse is free to do things like gift assets to people who aren’t named in the will or retitle assets with their own children or a new spouse. It’s a simple but limited tool, best used by people who are absolutely certain their wishes will be carried out.


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