Blended families usually consist of a couple along with each spouse’s or at least one spouse’s children from former relationships. Blended families follow a family arrangement system where stepparents and stepchildren live together.
Living in a blended family can itself be extremely challenging. This is because, firstly, the children have to adapt to many changes, and they have to make a genuine effort to get along with their stepbrothers and sisters.
Moreover, looking after a blended family can be difficult for the parents as well. They will have to be extra sensitive about their children’s and stepchildren’s needs. All parties involved must be reeling from the effects of a divorce or separation.
Emotions may be running high, making it all the more complicated. Many children may harbour negative sentiments and feel personally responsible for the divorce between their parents. For such children, coping with these changes and living happily within a blended family might seem impossible.
However, on a positive note, there are many strategies that can be implemented to ensure that the transition to living in a blended family is smooth for everyone. While it may seem daunting and impossible at first, it may be easier to get along with stepchildren because of shared experiences. Similarly, because they face similar issues, the children can eventually get along well with each other.
When discussing blended families from a legal perspective, the topic of inheritance becomes salient. This article aims to discuss inheritance within a blended family by exploring issues that arise in the nexus between family law and succession law.
An article by the Australian Financial Review highlighted that disputes about Wills and estates had dramatically increased following a surge in blended families. It is evident that the risk of disputes regarding Wills and inheritance remains high in the case of blended families.
Potential problems related to inheritance in a blended family
Estate planning for conventional families is fairly straightforward. The needs of the spouse and the children are looked after well. However, despite this there are many cases wherein Wills are contested or challenged by family members or close friends.
Family provision claims provide opportunities to those who feel they were not provided for adequately in the Will to contest it. Even in the case of simple Wills and estate planning. family lawyers have come across cases where they have been challenged or contested.
Now, looking at the case of blended families, we realise that there are many additional parties whose interests need to be considered. This means that the potential for disputes and conflicts is significantly higher in case of blended families.
Moreover, estate planning becomes more complicated when one parent dies. In such cases, there are high chances for the deceased parent’s children from the first marriage to be neglected.
If the surviving spouse or de facto partner of that parent decides to update the Will, the deceased parent’s children from the former marriage might not even be eligible to make a claim on the estate.
Moreover, if the surviving spouse i.e., stepparent does not share a good relationship with the biological children of the deceased parent, there are greater chances of disputes to occur. This can also lead to strained relationships between all the children involved and the biological children of the deceased parent may bear grudges against their step siblings.
In the long run, this can have detrimental impacts for all involved parties. If family members have bad blood between them, they will find it hard to accept the circumstances and move on.
This also does not bode well from a mental health perspective for all involved parties. For children in blended families who are below the age of 18, being subjected to such issues can have long-term impacts on their personal and professional lives.
Hence, the issue of inheritance within a blended family must be dealt with immediately. Parties must not delay their estate planning if they have a unique family structure like this.
Mutual Wills for blended families
One of the best ways to avoid disputes in the future is for the parties to make mutual Wills. Mutual Wills are a type of legally binding contract between two parties.
The most important function of a mutual Will is that it ensures that the surviving spouse (in case one party passes away) does not disinherit stepchildren (biological children of deceased party).
If there is a mutual Will in place, the surviving spouse cannot revoke the Will following the death of their partner. Moreover, if the party attempts to change or update the Will, it will be considered a breach of contract.
In such a scenario, the biological children of the deceased party can bring legal action against the surviving spouse. They can exercise their legal right to claim the portion of estate that they are entitled to.
Mutual Wills allow couples to be bound to an estate plan. However, they do not offer flexibility in cases of unprecedented or unexpected situations.
Ultimately, cooperation and understanding between spouses who have remarried is the sure-fire approach to avoid unnecessary conflicts with regards to inheritance.
With the evolution of social structures within our community, we also need changes that can address issues associated with complicated family structures.
Other areas of family law such as parenting matters and child custody issues have also begun to include provisions for special family structures. For instance, options for split parenting or co-parenting exist for parties.
Similarly, there needs to be more legal avenues for special families like blended families when they are dealing with sensitive matters like inheritance.
Mutual Wills have its advantages and limitations. While they offer a solid option to avoid disputes, they cannot be considered by every blended family.
Therefore, there is a need for alternative approaches towards estate planning that are specifically meant for blended families.
Blended families may face a unique set of challenges in relation to inheritance and estate planning. Therefore, finalising estate planning should be one of the first priorities for people who have recently transitioned to a blended family structure.
John Bui is the Principal Solicitor of JB Solicitors – a family law firm based in Sydney, Australia. He has over 10 years’ experience in family law and commercial litigation. John is also a nationally accredited family law mediator and arbitrator.