Q: I have a will that leaves everything to my husband and then to my children. Are my two stepchildren included in the will or do I need to amend it? Will it make a difference if I adopt my stepchildren?
A: Today, it's not at all uncommon to find blended families. Probably a third of the estate plans that I prepare involve stepchildren or stepgrandchildren. It's not difficult to plan for a stepchild, but it is important to plan.
Although you may feel that your stepchildren are no different than your biological children, the law doesn't necessarily feel the same way. Therefore, if you intend to treat your children and stepchildren the same, you need to acknowledge them in your estate plan. If you fail to acknowledge the stepchildren, you run the risk of not accomplishing your goals and the risk of hurt feelings.
One of the best examples of the importance of specifically acknowledging a stepchild involved an estate that I handled early in my career. The plan, which I didn't draft, specifically named all of the children and the stepchildren and split the estate equally between them.
The plan worked perfectly, except there was a separate paragraph that left the personal property to "my children." By using the term children rather than naming the individuals, the stepson was not included. Fortunately, the family got along and they all agreed the stepchild should have been included and entered into a family settlement agreement. Although the ending was happy, it could well have ended differently
If you have stepchildren and you want to include them in your estate plan, discuss it with your attorney. Make your intentions clear and the attorney will do the rest.
Also, if you have stepgrandchildren you intend to make provisions for, be sure to mention it to the attorney. A lot of estate plans use the term "per stirpes" to provide for grandchildren. Per stirpes is Latin for "per branch." If you look at your will, it may something like "to my children, per stirpes." What that means is if one of your children predeceases you, his share will go to his children. However, since stepchildren are not defined as "children," a stepchild would not be included in devise that passes under a per stirpes provision.
As for adopted children, no special planning is required. If you adopted a child, he is legally yours and any provision in an estate plan referencing a child would include him. No worries there.