I have been happily married for 20 years, with a daughter from my first marriage and a son from my current marriage. My husband and I are arguing, though, about how to divide our assets in our wills. If my husband died first, I would split the assets 50-50 between my children. But if I die first, he plans to give one-third to my daughter and two-thirds to our son. He feels that my daughter may eventually inherit money from her birth father (though we don't know if that's true). Is there a way to structure my will to make sure our assets are eventually split evenly? Or is this a situation where the person who dies last wins the argument?
As nice as it is to hear you describe yourself as happily married, how can everything be so great if there is such a serious disconnect between you and your husband? How happy can you really be if you're considering letting the last spouse still breathing decide things? That's a recipe for resentment and hurt. You both deserve better.
I do not think it makes sense for anyone who remarries or comes into a relationship with assets to name the spouse the sole beneficiary and assume everything will be fine. I know spelling things out in a legal document may strike some people as unloving—but think about how loving that act is to your children or siblings or dear friends you'd like to leave something to.
The good news is that there are plenty of estate planning tools for blended families like yours, or for anyone entering a relationship with assets they want to bequeath to someone other than a spouse. But the most important step right now is for you both to find a lawyer who specializes in estate planning.
I checked in with my trusted personal estate attorney, Janet Dobrovolny, for some advice. She stressed that it is not uncommon with blended families for one parent to have a blind spot when it comes to distributions for their children. The bond to the child seems stronger in many cases than the bond to a spouse, and it can cloud judgment.
Be patient and respectful as you work things out. An important part of the process will be to define your individual goals. For example, you can arrange for the surviving spouse to have access to the income from your spousal assets but not the right to spend the principal. You can also arrange for a particular asset or amount of money to pass to a particular child regardless of which one of you dies first. As for your house, you can set things up so the surviving spouse will have the option to stay in the home but, upon his or her death, ownership of the house will pass to any children.
A good lawyer is essential to designing a plan that fits your entire family. To understand your options and best utilize time with the attorney, I recommend reading Estate Planning for Blended Families
, by Richard E. Barnes.
Suze Orman's latest book is The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Build the Future You Deserve (Spiegel & Grau). To ask Suze a question go to oprah.com/omagazine_talk
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