Creating a Blended Family? Three Key Steps to Consider

Blended families can make your finances and estate extra complicated, but you can head off some of those issues with careful planning.

A blended family smile and laugh as they jockey for position on a bench in a park.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A “blended family” can mean different things depending on who you ask. It can consist of two adults, children they have together and children they’ve had with previous partners. But it can also include ex-spouses, ex-in-laws and unmarried parents — and all of the emotions that come with these relationships. Planning your finances in this context can, understandably, feel overwhelming.

If you’re entering a blended family, or are already a part of one, here are some key considerations for planning your finances.

Take steps before you’re part of a blended family

Before getting married, it’s important to openly communicate about finances and financial goals, regardless of whether either person has previously been married or has children. You can hope for the best, but you should still consider planning for the worst. This can help you save time, money and heartache later on.

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A prenuptial agreement, signed before marriage, can outline how you want your assets (or debt) to be divided in the event of a divorce or death. If you’re already married, you can still create a “postnuptial” agreement. Similar to a prenup, a postnuptial agreement can outline the distribution of assets and liabilities and any post-divorce responsibilities.

If your current marriage is heading for a divorce, there are steps you can take to help make things easier for your family in the future. It’s important to try to make your and your ex-spouse’s financial lives as separate as possible. This might not always be feasible, but try to minimize future obligations if you can. Once your divorce is finalized, you can work with your estate planning attorney to remove your ex-spouse from your documents as a decisionmaker, fiduciary and as a beneficiary.

Be explicit in your estate planning documents

Even if you do have a will or estate planning documents in place, you have to carefully and explicitly outline what you want in those documents. This can be particularly important for those with blended families. For example, unless you specify otherwise, if you leave your assets to your “children” or “descendants,” then that means blood relatives or legally adopted children, and does not include others, such as stepchildren. Working with an estate planning attorney can help you accurately convey your wishes in your documents.

If you do not have a will or trust in place, your estate could get distributed according to default state laws, which generally give a portion of your assets to your spouse and the remainder to your children when they reach the age of majority. However, this only includes biological or legally adopted children, not stepchildren — no matter how young they were when you married their parent. If you want to leave assets to your stepchildren or other non-blood relatives, it’s especially important to have a will and estate planning documents in place that reflect your objectives.

Check your asset titling and beneficiary designations

Don’t overlook the way you title your assets. Asset titling can often upend even the most carefully drafted will or trust. For example, let’s say you have outlined in your will for some of your property to pass to your children from a prior marriage after your passing. If all your assets are owned with your spouse jointly with rights of survivorship, your request expressed in your will would not be carried out. Instead, all of your assets would pass to your spouse in accordance with the asset titling.

This also applies to “transfer on death” or “payable on death” accounts, where someone can inherit your account when you pass. It’s crucial that your asset and account titling is consistent with your estate plan. If you want to pass along assets to your children or other family members, consider retitling them into your individual name and make sure your estate planning documents reflect these wishes.

You should also regularly review your beneficiary designations on all of your accounts, such as IRAs, 401(k)s and life insurance policies, and update them as needed. It’s important to remember that a divorce decree does not override a beneficiary designation. If your divorce decree does not mention a particular account, the beneficiary designation associated with that account will control it after your passing, even if the person listed is an ex-spouse.

Blending families can come with challenges, and it can make planning your finances even more complicated. Working with legal, tax and financial professionals can help ensure you understand your options and ensure your expectations are met. There are steps you can take to help plan for the future and pass your legacy on to your loved ones as intended.

JPMorgan Chase & Co., its affiliates, and employees do not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal and accounting advisors before engaging in any financial transaction.

J.P. Morgan Wealth Management is a business of JPMorgan Chase & Co., which offers investment products and services through J.P. Morgan Securities LLC (JPMS), a registered broker-dealer and investment adviser, member FINRA and SIPC.

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Adam Frank
Head of Wealth Planning and Advice, J.P. Morgan Wealth Management

Adam leads J.P. Morgan Wealth Management's Wealth Planning and Advice team, which is responsible for wealth planning, thought leadership and strategic planning for individual clients. This national team of former practicing lawyers provides experience in estate and tax planning strategies, retirement planning, restricted and control stock and stock option management, business succession planning, pre- and post-transactional planning, concentrated position management and other personal planning strategies. The team provides internal training to the J.P. Morgan Wealth Management sales force on these topics and also creates content for distribution to the public.