By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
September 22, 2015
Estate Planning: Don’t Unintentionally Disinherit Your Stepchildren
The modern family comes in many shapes and sizes. In Florida, many households include a mix of biological children and stepchildren—children from prior marriages or relationships.
When it comes to estate planning, parents of step-children are faced with unique considerations. In Florida, step-children are not treated as their step-parent’s legal heirs. For this reason, it’s important to ensure your will or trust defines the names your children correctly if you want them to inherit from your estate.
Otherwise, you risk unintentionally disinheriting your child, leaving him or her with nothing. This was the predicament the Rodriguez family was surprised to find itself in.
“We Were His Kids Too!”
Longtime residents of Cottondale, Florida were all thrilled when they learned that Tom Rodriguez had started dating a beautiful Vietnamese woman with two 3-year-old daughters.
“He’s been alone for far too long!”, local churchgoers agreed as they gossiped over post-mass donuts and coffee. “Deborah left him and his daughter more than four years ago, the poor things!”
“Gracie could use a mother figure in her life,” the ladies in the community consented during their bi-monthly meetings. “Tom does his best, but lord knows he’s no substitute for a loving mother!”
Tom certainly seemed happy about the new arrangement, and he and the lovely Mai could often be spotted hand-in-hand, strolling through the park or visiting the pool with Mai’s two daughters and Gracie.
Tom and Mai were married within a year. The new family fit into the community at once, attending church and volunteering regularly at the local pet shelter. Gracie and Mai’s daughters—Mel and June—became fast friends, and the three of them grew into smart, beautiful girls, and talented athletes.
When their children went off to college, Mai and Tom continued to live in the family home. After Tom retired from his dentistry practice, he and Mai would spend their days swimming in their pool or taking their boat out for week-long sailing trips.
Tom died of skin cancer shortly after turning 70. Gracie, Mel, and June returned to their hometown for their father’s funeral. After tending to their grieving mother, cleaning up the house, and bidding the last of the funeral guests farewell, the girls set off to re-examine their father’s will.
Fortunately, one of Mai’s friends—George Walters— was an estate planning attorney. George agreed to sit down and look over the will with the family in order to determine their father’s wishes and discuss distribution of his estate.
The family gathered in the living room on a rainy Saturday evening. George read Tom’s do-it-yourself will aloud:
“I leave my home and boat to my wife, Mai Rodriguez,” George read. “To my children, I leave 70 percent of all my estate.” George frowned. “Hmm…”
“What’s wrong?” ask Mai. “That sounds about right. Tom promised to leave behind money for his girls to use towards their graduate school education.”
“Well, the problem here is Tom’s choice of words,” George explains. “Florida probate laws do not automatically recognize stepchildren as heirs, and Tom has written that he wants to leave his estate to his ‘children,’ but makes no mention of his ‘stepchildren’.”
“But Tom loved Mel and June as his own children!” Gracie protested.
“I know that,” said George. “But Florida law doesn’t know that. Since Mel and June were not specifically defined as children in the will, they are not legally be entitled to anything.”
There was a pause.
“But we were his kids, too!” blurted out Mel.
Fortunately, Gracie had no intention of taking the lion’s share of her father’s estate for herself. The family was spared a legal battle in court, since Gracie was happy to split her inheritance equally with her sisters. Interesting, Gracie experienced complications of her generosity, as she incurred gift taxes on the concession.
Other families aren’t so lucky. Without a proper estate plan, parents often end up disinheriting children without meaning to. As a result, they leave them without a single penny of inheritance or financial security.
That’s why it’s so important for parents who wish to leave an inheritance behind for stepchildren to create a strong, thoughtful estate plan. You can make sure your stepchild will inherit from your estate by naming him or her specifically as a beneficiary in your will. Your stepchild may not be included if you refer to him or her using vague terms such as “descendants,” “children,” or “heirs.” On the other hand, you have to be careful when defining heirs so as to avoid excluding an otherwise qualifying class of beneficiaries.
To ensure that the intent to include your stepchild is very clear within the language of your will and other documents, consult with a Florida estate planning attorney. An experienced estate planning lawyer can help you draft valid documents that ensure your wishes are protected, and help to clarify the identity of your beneficiaries to Florida courts after you pass. The stakes are just too great not to.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose
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