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Step-Parents and Stepchildren – Keeping the Peace After You’re Gone

A family feud between Robin Williams’s widow and his children from prior marriages has received a lot of press.  A major issue in this feud involves Mr. Williams’s tangible personal  property, personal items he collected over the years.  Mrs. Williams and her stepchildren differ on which items were bequeathed to them.

This story is a vivid reminder that a person’s personal possessions, whether or not they have significant monetary value, may assume extraordinary importance to the heirs once that person passes away.  And the dynamics between a step-parent and the deceased’s children can assume a ferocity never imagined.

But, when planning your estate, there are some things that can help allay the feuding between your children and their step-parent.

1.  It goes without saying that you should specify as clearly as possible in your Will (or in a written statement attached to your Will) who gets what.  It’s not enough to state that your daughter gets the family heirlooms and your wife gets the furniture you brought to the marriage.  What about that antique chair in the living room that you inherited from your grandmother?   A far better approach is to make a list of all the specific items you wish to bequeath; next to each item, name the designated beneficiary.  The clearer your intentions, the less likely that arguments will ensue.  Of course, you can modify your list, changing who gets what, whenever you wish.  The point is to be as clear as possible about your intentions.

2.  Also, telling your heirs in person how you are dividing up your tangible personal property eliminates the future element of surprise.  It allows your heirs to voice their feelings, enables you to explain your rationale, and gives people time to get used to the idea.  While you may prefer one-on-one talks, you should also consider a group discussion to help insure that everyone hears the same thing.  However, if you change your mind at some later time regarding who gets what, be sure to inform all the affected beneficiaries about those changes.  Neglecting to do so may lead to major feuds once your gone – exactly what you were hoping to avoid.

3.  Finally, it’s worth considering distributing some of your personal things in advance.  Special occasions like holidays, birthdays, and graduations are great opportunities to gift personal items to loved ones.  And these are excellent opportunities, when the whole family is together, for all to see what has been gifted.

Bequeathing your personal possessions to loved ones is intended to bring them joy.  But it can be particularly tricky in the case of stepchildren and step-parents.  Taking some proactive steps may save your loved ones considerable problems after you’re gone.

Getting Legal Help

Experienced Estate Planning Attorney, Elga A. Goodman, can work with you on all your estate planning needs.  Contact us today at 973-841-5111.

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