For people who die without a will or trust, California law provides a default path (intestacy statute) for where your stuff goes after you die. The distribution path of the default law will sound pretty intuitive… for a conventional family. For example, it provides for your surviving spouse first, then your children, then your nearest family members. That sounds all well and good if families always consisted of a current spouse and joint children. But what if your children are from a previous relationship and you are currently in an unmarried relationship? Or what if you and your current spouse both have children from a previous relationship? Or what if you married someone who has children from a previous relationship, but her/his children are not legally or biologically yours? Welcome to the issues that surround being a member of what many call a “blended family”.
California law does not adequately provide a default for blended families. And for good reason. Because there isn’t a “typical” blended family. But if you do zero estate planning, that same default applies equally to everyone, whether or not you’re in a blended family situation. So it’s imperative that you state your desires— in a comprehensive estate plan— instead of relying on a default provision that may not adequately cover your family situation, or at best might create some unintended consequences.
With a comprehensive estate plan, you can specifically describe who you want to provide for after you die, and how. For example, without proper estate planning, all of your assets could be left to your spouse, who then leaves it all to her/his children, leaving your children out of the path of inheritance. Or, if you are in an unmarried relationship, if you don’t plan properly, your current partner could end up out in the cold with all of your assets going to your children or other family members and bypassing the person you most want to care for.
There are thousands of hypothetical situations we can describe. The critical message here is that if the default doesn’t address your family situation, then it’s important that you adequately describe your wishes in a comprehensive estate plan. Don’t leave your loved ones dealing with undesired— but avoidable— consequences.