Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step-siblings. Not recognizing the realities of step-sibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.
Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That is when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step-siblings, it is important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.
Here is an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step-siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.
The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:
While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it is multiple children and they do not get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.
Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.
If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?
If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you cannot. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.
Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”