Here's the beauty of creating a custom Estate Plan: you can do exactly what you want with your house, possessions, heirlooms, and money. There are no laws telling you who can and cannot inherit from your estate. If you want to exclude an estranged family member—you can. If you want to leave everything to someone who is not even a blood relative—you can. And if you want to include your stepchildren, you can do so by writing them into your Will or naming them as beneficiaries of a Trust.
Where inheritance laws come into play is when you die without a Will. In that case, Texas intestate laws determine who will inherit, and stepchildren are not included on that list.
Texas Intestate Succession Laws
In Texas, if you die without a Will, your property and assets will go through the Texas Probate Court, which will distribute assets according to Texas intestate laws. The community estate will go to your spouse, and one-third of any separate property will go to your spouse while two-thirds will go to your children. If you do not leave a spouse behind, your estate will be distributed according to a complicated succession order that includes children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandparents, and cousins.
Note that stepchildren are not included in the line of succession. However, if you adopt your stepchildren, they are legally considered to be your children and inherit equally with any biological children. To avoid any uncertainty and to have control over who inherits what, it is essential that you execute a Will and write a comprehensive Estate Plan.
Estate Planning Considerations When You Have Stepchildren
Blended families are common these days, and every family has unique dynamics that should be considered when creating an Estate Plan. You might be closer to your stepchildren than you are to your biological children from a previous marriage. You might remarry when you are older and have no relationship at all with your spouse's adult children. The more complicated your situation is, the more important it is to have an Estate Plan that considers the following:
- Beneficiary designations. Review and update beneficiary designations on life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and other financial assets to reflect your current family structure and ensure that assets pass to intended beneficiaries.
- Spousal inheritance. Your Estate Plan should clearly define how assets will pass between spouses. Consider whether assets should pass outright to the surviving spouse or if certain assets should be earmarked for the benefit of stepchildren. If you are on your second or third marriage, you might want to consider having an Estate Plan that is separate from your spouse's, even if you name each other as primary beneficiaries.
- Children's inheritance. If there is a desire to protect the inheritance of biological children from a previous marriage, consider using Trusts to ensure that their financial interests are safeguarded.
- Guardianship for minor children. If there are minor children involved, clearly designate guardianship arrangements in the event that both biological parents are unable to care for them. This is especially important if there are stepchildren from different marriages.
- Prenuptial agreements. Consider entering into prenuptial or postnuptial agreements to address the distribution of assets in case of divorce or death. These agreements can provide clarity and minimize potential disputes.
- Family dynamics. Recognize and address potential challenges arising from blended family dynamics. Consider how relationships between stepchildren and biological children may impact decisions related to asset distribution.
- Regular review and updates. Estate plans should be reviewed and updated regularly, especially after significant life events such as marriages, divorces, births, adoptions, or deaths, to ensure they remain reflective of your wishes and current family circumstances.
At Ross & Shoalmire, our Estate Planning lawyers have worked with all kinds of families, and we understand how complicated the dynamics can become. Seeking our guidance can help ensure that your Estate Plan meets your goals, is legally sound, and effectively addresses the unique considerations of your blended family and stepchildren.