“Here’s a Story…Of a Lovely Lady…” Planning for Today’s Blended Families

I grew up watching the Brady Bunch.  Mike and Carol Brady are my first recollection of the “Blended Family.”  Mike had three children from a previous marriage: Greg, Peter and Bobby (of course, they also had Tiger, the family dog.)  Carol had three daughters from her previous marriage:  Marsha, Jan and Cindy … the youngest one in curls.  Although the concept may have been very progressive & I found the show very entertaining, I have my doubts about how representative or realistic it is of Blended Families that exist today.

For example, wouldn’t it be more likely in today’s age that Mike’s and/or Carol’s divorces would have led to the creation of their new blended family (as opposed to them both being widowed?)  I suppose that the producers of the show felt that having Mike’s or Carol’s divorced spouse written into the show would have changed the dynamic (if so, I have to agree.)

Also, what if Mike and Carol had more children after they were married?  This new child would be the only common biological child to both parents.   How would that have affected the family?

A quick Google search revealed this as a definition for a Blended Family (from this Boston College website):

    “1. A family that is formed when separate families are united by marriage or other circumstance; a stepfamily. 

    2. Various kinship or nonkinship groups whose members reside together and assume traditional family roles” (Barker, 2003, p. 46).

“…has a role structure in which at least one parent has been previously married and which includes children from one or both of these marriages” (Johnson, 2000, p. 119).

My colleague, Jennifer L. Moccia, has written a wonderful blog post with some introductory thoughts on the topic, titled Estate Planning Considerations for Blended Families.  Ms. Moccia notes some of the issues surrounding these “nontraditional” families, including:

  • the fear that children from a prior relationship may not be provided for by the surviving spouse if the parent were to become disabled or pass away,
  • how the absence of an estate plan & a marital agreement may affect a child’s inheritance because of state law,
  • who would control the child’s inheritance in the case of a minor child, and
  • how to accomplish the parents desires to treat children equally or unequally.

You can read the entire blog post by clicking here.  I think the following quote from her post puts it best: “Successful blended family estate planning is a matter of setting and communicating goals, learning the available legal strategies, implement­ing the chosen documents and setting appropriate expectations for the client. With guidance from experienced counsel, the various goals of each family can be met by crafting and implementing estate plans that provide for each spouse and protect the interests of their respective children.”

How To Choose The Right Guardian For Your Children

Who should raise your children if for some reason you and your spouse are unable to do so? It’s not an easy question to answer, but if you have young children, it is a topic you most certainly should address in your estate plan. Otherwise, a court will decide, and their decision will probably not be the same as the one you would have made, and may not even be in the best interests of your children.

Some of the most important issues to consider when choosing a guardian include:

  • Does the prospective guardian have a genuine interest in your children’s well-being?
  • Does the prospective guardian share your values?
  • Can he or she handle the role physically and emotionally? What about financially, if you cannot provide him or her with enough assets to raise your children?
  • Does the prospective guardian already have children of his or her own? Will he or she be able to make enough time to adequately care for and look after your children?
  • Where does the prospective guardian live? Would that be a good fit for your children? Would having to move far away make an already stressful situation for your children even more so?
  • Is it essential that all your children share the same guardian? Most parents say yes, but in some circumstances, such as when your children are of significantly different ages, naming more than one guardian is an option.
  • Should you choose one person to act as personal guardian and another to manage the financial arrangements for your children-that is, name a second person to act as Custodian or Trustee?

In certain situations, such as when the best surrogate parent for your children is not necessarily the best person to handle financial matters, this option is worth considering.

  • Perhaps most important of all, have you spoken to the prospective guardian about taking on such a responsibility, and does he or she seem readily willing to do so?

What if you and your child’s other parent cannot agree?
It goes without saying that you and your child’s other parent should name the same guardian for your children. But what if you are divorced, or for whatever reason you and your spouse cannot agree on the most suitable guardian? Naming different guardians will lead to a battle in court should you and the children’s other parent pass away while your children are still minors. The decision over guardianship will then be in the judge’s hands.

Part of the solution to this situation is to leave a Letter of Explanation, outlining your reasons for choice of guardian. It is important to have an experienced attorney assist you in the drafting of such a letter, but here are the basics of what should be included:

  • Who the children would prefer, that is, the relationship between the children and the prospective guardian
  • Why your choice of guardian will best meet the children’s needs, particularly with regard to providing stability and proper care
  • The values and moral fitness of the prospective guardian
  • The physical and financial ability of the prospective guardian to raise your children

We have helped many couples select the ideal guardian for their children and designed wills or other planning documents to ensure their wishes are carried out. We welcome the opportunity to do the same for you.