When the Brady Bunch began airing in 1969, the idea of the blended marriage was still novel enough to provide five season’s worth of material for ABC. Today, the blended family is much more commonplace, and not just among the young. Baby Boomers as a group have been much more likely to divorce and remarry than their own parents were.
As a result, we commonly have to consider what I call the “Brady Bunch Dynamic” when undertaking estate planning. Even when a couple has been married for many years, it can quickly become apparent that blood is still thicker than water after the death of the first spouse. Suddenly, the individual who served as the glue for the relationship between step-siblings and step-parents has been removed, but their money and property has been left behind.
This can be a recipe for conflict.
Let’s consider the Brady’s as an example. Let’s assume that Mike Brady, who has three sons, built a successful architecture business before marrying his second wife, Carol. This is Carol’s second marriage as well, and she has three daughters of her own. Mike’s children like Carol very much, but Carol brought little to the marriage financially.
Other than the occasional fit of jealousy, or errant football to the nose, the children are close and have an altogether normal step-sibling relationship. Mike’s business flourishes to the point that he becomes the preeminent architect in his area, and amasses an estate worth around $3 Million. At age 61, he dies after a sudden illness. Carol Brady is now a widow at age 58.
So, what happens to Mike’s money? That of course depends upon a number of factors, but here are a few scenarios to consider. If Mike left everything outright to Carol, then she can do with it as she pleases during her life. This includes the right to spend it all, or to leave everything to only her three daughters. But what if Carol doesn’t even have a will? Then her children (and not Mike’s children) may wind up inheriting all of Mike’s money. This is because Mike’s children are not her heirs at law (unless she adopted them prior to her death).
What if Carol remarries? Absent a prenuptial agreement, hew new hubby will inherit a least a chunk of the wealth Mike worked to build. Or he may convince her to spend it all on high living during their marriage. And even if Carol’s will left nothing to the new husband, he would be entitled to elect against the will and take his spousal share, which is a minimum inheritance for a spouse calculated based upon a number of factors. Traditionally, it’s about one-third of the deceased spouse’s estate.
The possibilities are endless. Carol may live many more years, during which she may use up most or all of any inheritance that Mike’s children would otherwise have received. She may intentionally leave the money to someone else, including a new spouse. She may be victimized by someone who wishes to take financial advantage of little old widow.
The fact of the matter is that—especially in a blended family—everything changes after someone dies. Careful estate planning that recognizes this fact can help to sustain family harmony even after you’re gone. For example, Mike could set aside a portion of his estate for the care and maintenance of Carol for the rest of her life, while at the same time restricting her ability to leave anything that is left to a new spouse, or to her own children only.
Regardless of the strategies implemented, the most important thing is to recognize the situation and come up with a plan. When you do nothing, your silence and lack of planning creates a void which will be filled by the survivors’ imaginations—what you “would have” wanted, or what you “always said” you would do, or that “everyone knows” that “Marsha was your favorite.”
Don’t let money come between your family. Instead, create a plan that will maintain family harmony after you’re gone.