Unless you act, you leave nothing to your stepchild

On Behalf of | Apr 24, 2020 | Estate Planning |

Blended families are commonplace. Today, the thought of a stepchild getting cut out of their inheritance only because they are a stepchild might seem unthinkable.

But a parent’s or spouse’s death involves many complex emotions and perhaps many financial assets. Imagine your deceased parent had several ex-spouses, and a long-lost child of one of them shows up at the funeral asking about your lake house. Conflict does happen.

What can a New York stepparent do to influence what a stepchild inherits from their estate?

A will can clearly express your intentions

As a stepparent in New York State, if you do not take definite steps, your stepchildren will have no rights to your estate. The law is clear on this. In terms of inheritance rights, your stepchildren are essentially strangers.

But again, this applies if you take no steps, such as making a will, to change things,

In a will, you can say that you want your stepchildren included. You will want to be specific, of course, by naming the stepchildren individually and detailing what you want to give them. Strictly speaking, this is a gift, so it is wise to your intentions very clear, making your decision more difficult to contest later.

Wills are contested relatively frequently, and if your will is somehow declared invalid the stepchild will again lose the gift.

Adoption fully and legally makes your stepchild your child

A more powerful tool to guarantee the law will treat your stepchild the same as your biological children is to adopt the stepchild. In the eyes of the law, adoption makes a person your child, plain and simple.

Adoption may seem like a big step, and indeed it can get complicated.

What if the stepchild is adult? This is no generally problem because there is no cut-off age for adoption in New York. If the adoptee is over 14, they must give their consent. If the adoptee is younger than 18, the court will need the permission of both biological parents of the adoptee, unless the judge finds this is not necessary.

Trusts put the control in your hands

Experts in estate planning tend to love trusts. Trusts are like super-wills, achieving everything wills can do and much more. They offer better protection from creditors, minimize taxes, maximize privacy and unlike a will, they avoid probate court entirely. A trust can do more for a stepchild than just keep them in the inheritance.

A trust protects the assets placed in a trust, and a trustee is bound by the conditions of the trust to distribute the assets however you intended, including periodically over time, or under the condition that the child attend a certain university, or any number of other provisions you choose. If your stepchild might be able to get public disability benefits, you may want to look into a special needs trust.