top of page
  • Writer's pictureBroaden Law LLP

The Ins and Outs of Inheritance Rights in a Blended Family

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

Blended families face unique challenges when it comes to estate planning.   Without a plan in place, inheritance rights of stepchildren are virtually nonexistent—or worse, depend entirely on which parent dies first. 


When is a Stepchild an Heir to the Stepparent’s Estate?


The short answer is that a stepchild can only hope for a share of the stepparent’s estate when the stepparent is the first spouse to die because the remaining estate passes to the stepchild through the surviving parent on the second death.  If the stepparent is the second spouse to die, the stepchildren will only receive a share of the stepparent’s estate if the stepparent leaves no other surviving children, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces or nephews.  We haven’t seen it happen yet!


Under California law, there is one teeny tiny loophole that might encompass some blended families that have unsuccessfully attempted a stepparent adoption.  It applies if the family “blended” during childhood AND there is proof that the stepchild would have been adopted “but for a legal barrier.” 


Considering Adoption as Part of Your Estate Plan


We think that stepparent adoption is a wonderful way to celebrate the parent-child relationship between members of a blended family.  Adoption of a stepchild can express familial love and unify the family front.  In the estate planning context, adult adoptions are becoming increasingly common.


Practically speaking, the adoption process requires terminating the rights of a biological parent (unless the biological parent is deceased).  If the other biological parent has visitation or regularly supports the minor stepchild, that creates a de facto legal barrier to a stepparent adoption.   


Inheritance Rights Outside the Blended Family


Once adopted, a stepchild has the same inheritance rights as a biological child.  But what about outside the blended family?  The law in California recognizes that an adopted stepchild may still have formed strong relationships the biological parent and/or the parent’s relatives before the adoption.  In 1965, the Supreme Court of California stated, “[L]aw should not and cannot ignore the fact that an adopted person may not in many respects be cut off from his natural family.” (In re Zook's Estate (1965) 62 Cal.2d 492, 495).  It continues to state, “If affection and regard remains between members of a natural family, the law should not in the name of consistency undertake to thwart the expression of those feelings when the encouragement thereof does not hinder the adoptive relationships.”


So, even though adoption generally severs the parent-child relationship with a biological parent and the right to inherit by, through, or from, the biological parent, there are three notable exceptions that preserve the adopted stepchild’s status as an intestate heir to the biological parent’s estate. Rest assured, however, none of these three exceptions entitle the biological parent to any part of the adopted stepchild’s estate.


An adopted stepchild is still considered to be an heir to the biological parent’s estate in any one of the following circumstances:


1.   The adopted stepchild lived with the biological parent during childhood.


2.   The biological parent was living with, or married to, the other parent but died before the adopted stepchild was born.


3.   The adoption occurred after the biological parent’s death.


Read the Boilerplate Carefully


If you have already prepared an estate plan, we urge you to review your documents carefully to see how stepchildren adopted as adults are treated.  Many estate plan documents contain standard boilerplate language that limits the rights of stepchildren adopted as adults—even if the parent-child relationship has existed since childhood. 


Here is a typical clause that you should look for within the “definitions” section of a living trust:


The words "issue," "child," and "children" as used in this Trust Agreement include children and issue legally adopted during minority, but not "children" adopted after the "child" has reached majority.


Without a clear plan in place, such as a will, trust, or other beneficiary designation, inheritance can become uncertain and potentially lead to disputes.  Estate planning allows you to safeguard your wishes, protect your family’s interests, and offer a stable future for your children and grandchildren that are part of a blended family.


Our estate planning attorneys can help you review your existing estate plan documents to make sure that there are no unintended consequences.  Call Broaden Law LLP at (619) 567-6845 today to make an appointment to learn more about estate planning, stepparent and adult adoption.


Os comentários foram desativados.
bottom of page