Estate Planning for the “Modern Family” Family

A “blended” “mixed” or “modern” family is one in which all the children are not the biological children of both spouses (i.e. steps-relatives and half-siblings). Estate planning for a modern family can be very tricky – it is pretty easy to accidentally disinherit someone. To illustrate, let’s consider what the estate plan of fictional TV character Jay Pritchett from ABC’s hit television show “Modern Family” would look like.

Jay has the ultimate “modern family” (hence the title of the show): two adult children by a previous wife (Claire and Mitchell), a new wife (Gloria), their child together (Joe), and her child from a previous relationship (Manny), and the destructive dog he adores (Stella). His adult daughter Claire is married and has three mostly-grown children of her own. His son Mitchell is gay and married to his partner Cameron, and they adopted their daughter Lilly. Clearly, the fictional Jay Pritchett has a lot going on in his life.

Who counts as Jay’s “Child”? Factoring in Step-Children

Jay has three biological children around forty years apart from two different women, plus his step-son Manny. if Jay doesn’t have a will, his step-son Manny would not be considered his child because he did not formally adopt Manny. That means, should he die, Manny would be treated as if he were a complete stranger and given nothing.

However, Jay probably considers Manny his child. Manny has lived with with him since he was a child and he fulfills a father-like role in his life. Therefore, Jay would may want to include in his estate plan that step-children count as children.

The problem with this, however, is that that same rule could apply to his children’s children. Either of his adult children could, theoretically, divorce and remarry another adult with grown children. Jay probably would not ever develop a relationship with these grown step-grandchildren and wouldn’t’ want his money going to them if his adult child passed away. So, maybe that “step-children are children” rule isn’t so great after all, and he would just have to specifically name Manny as his child.

Should all of his “Children” be treated equally? Pros and Cons of Equality

There is a strong argument that all children should be treated equally in an estate plan to ensure family harmony. When children aren’t treated equally, it opens up the estate plan to legal challenges and family disputes, because people often equate love with money and money with their sense of self. These legal challenges can drain the estate’s finances and destroy families.

But, on the flip side, there can be reasons to treat them differently. Here, Phil’s adult children are grown up with their own children, houses, and careers. Phil’s step-son, Manny, is a young adult now in college but still living at home over breaks. Phil’s youngest son is a minor child with many years to go until he is independent.

Manny needs a lot of things that Jay has already provided to his oldest children – college tuition, maybe a car, a place to stay until he gets established. Isn’t only fair that Jay continues to pay for these things which he provided for his other children?

And Joe, the baby, has years more of expenses that the others already received – his first car, private school tuition, guitar lessons, college. Shouldn’t he get money to cover his share of these things as well?

The Ex: Jay’s Responsibilities to an Ex-Spouse

Jay was married to DeDe for 35 years and had two children with her. They divorced and later DeDe passed away. Let’s pretend DeDe is still alive. It may seem crazy, but Jay could still have an obligation to include his ex-spouse in his current estate plan – it just comes down to his divorce decree. Oftentimes in a long-time marriage like his, the court will require one ex-spouse to carry life insurance for the benefit of the other ex-spouse with the aim of ensuring that the lower-income spouse isn’t left without support after the other’s death.

If Jay forgets about this little detail in his estate plan and transfers over all of his old assets to name his new beneficiaries, his estate would be liable to his ex-spouse for failure to adhere to the court order. The ex-spouse could claim her share of his assets (and life insurance policies can be for quire a bit of money!) up to one year after Jay’s death, which could cause a lot of drama.

Jay’s Responsibilities to his Current Spouse

Jay’s second wife Gloria does not work and could not support herself in the lifestyle she is accustomed to. Jay predictably will want to make sure Gloria will be taken care of for the rest of her life after he dies. However, unlike in a traditional first marriage, Jay cannot leave Gloria all of his assets because this would mean that Jay’s children from his previous marriage would be disinherited if he did so. Jay’s money would go to Gloria, and then when she dies, to Gloria’s children Manny and Joe. Jay’s older children are not Gloria’s children, so his money would not pass on to them if he leaves it to Gloria alone.

The state of Missouri’s approach to this is that the spouse gets 1/3 of his assets plus other certain assets, and the rest goes to his children equally. This isn’t practical for most families for a wide variety of reasons. Instead, Joe would probably want to think about setting up a life estate or a special type of trust where Gloria could stay in their home and use all or some portion of his assets until she dies, and then the rest would pass to all of Jay’s children.

And Then There’s Stella

Jay loves his dog, sometimes to the extent that his wife Gloria feels upstaged. Stella chews things up and causes havoc left, right, and center, but Jay loves her anyways. There are no provisions under the law on who will take care of your pets and how. Jay would likely want to include a provision in his estate plan that would ensure that Stella would go to a good home and provide enough assets for that person to take care of her. He can’t count on his wife being willing and able to take care of Stella – she could predecease him or be unable or unwilling to care for the dog.

Instead, Jay would probably nominate a pet guardian to look after his dog if Gloria could or would not do it for him. Given Stella’s penchant for trouble, it would also be a good idea to ensure that whoever took Stella on would be receiving a financial incentive to offset the costs of having a dog (food, medications, emergency visits, the cost of replacing shoes she eats) so that Stella ends up with someone who really cares about her even if that person couldn’t otherwise afford it.

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations when making an estate plan with a mixed, modern family. The default rules of inheritance do not work well in these situations, so it is imperative that an estate plan be created. If Jay was a real person, we would tell him he needs to get his estate plan made right away because it would be a disaster if he passed without one.

We are not affiliated with Modern Family or the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in any way. Jay Pritchett is a fictional character we are using as an example to illustrate estate planning concepts.