With the divorce rate in the United States averaging around 50 percent,
it’s understandable why we have millions of blended families. Since
there are so many complicated family situations, a lot of Americans have
questions about the inheritance rights of both biological and stepchildren.
For example, let’s say that a man had two children with his first
wife. A victim of parental alienation, his adult children from his first
marriage refuse to speak to him. Moving on with his life, he later remarried
a wonderful woman with a one-year-old daughter and went on to raise her
as his own.
From the beginning, the man we’ll call “John” developed
a deep bond with his second wife’s baby girl. He was the only father
she ever knew and he went on to pay for her college and her wedding.
John didn’t think about formally adopting his stepdaughter and fearing
his own mortality, he never got around to drafting a will. When John died
suddenly of a heart attack, half of his estate was passed on to his two
adult children who he hasn’t seen or heard from in 50 years, and
meanwhile his beloved stepdaughter who was a single mother raising three
children of her own didn’t receive a penny.
Intestate Succession Laws
How could this happen? Stepchildren do not have the same inheritance rights
as biological and adopted children. If a stepparent wants to leave a stepchild
any part of their estate, they must leave specific bequests in a will.
Otherwise, the stepchild could receive nothing, even if that was not the
If a stepparent dies without creating a will, it is said that he or she
died “intestate.” When people die intestate, state laws govern
which family members inherit the decedent’s estate. While the state
laws vary from state-to-state, generally the assets are passed down to
the surviving spouse, biological and adopted children, biological and
adopted grandchildren, and in some cases the decedent’s parents.
If the decedent died without a living spouse or biological or adopted children,
their inheritance would most likely go to their surviving parents and
not their stepchildren, even if they raised the stepchildren as their
own since they were in daycare or preschool.
If you would like to bequeath assets to your stepchildren, you will need
to specify your wishes in a will and/or a trust. To get started, contact
an estate planning attorney for legal advice.