Common Legal Struggles for Blended Families

The concept of a “blended family" has become more and more common over the past several decades. According to the Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center, 16% of children are a part of blended families. This means they live in a household with a stepparent, step-sibling, or half-sibling.

After a divorce takes place, families need to adjust to new challenges and learn a lot of new legal concepts. Issues like child support, custody, and alimony can be resolved in a family's living room or a court of law. No two families are the same, and no two blended families have the same approach to certain financial and custodial matters.

Despite how common these types of families are, the legal struggles they face have not become any less complicated over the years. From redoing estate plans to working through issues around custody and child support, blended families often have a lot of legal work to do.

Redoing Wills and Estate Plans

One of the first things that blended families need to take care of is redoing wills and estate plans. Because there are new spouses and children in the mix, all of the legal documents must reflect the current members of the family. Your will can be used to create a plan for your entire family, whether they are related to you by blood or marriage.

Speaking with a lawyer and doing your research on issues like state-specific requirements and estate tax law can help you to properly plan for your family's future. Depending on your situation, you may be in a position to provide inheritance and financial security not only for your children but for your step-children as well.

When you are creating your will and your other estate planning documents, make sure you keep in mind the specific challenges faced by blended families. If there are children in your house with guardians who live outside of your house (you and your current spouse's previous partners), then this may influence what your plans look like for custody in the event of your death. If your child's other biological parent is not involved and does not have custody, then their step-parent may be able to be named guardian.

Trusts in Blended Families

When establishing and administering a trust within a blended family, it often takes the form of an AB Trust. This means that part of the trust (Part A) is under the power of the surviving spouse, while the second part of the trust (Part B) is meant for the deceased spouse's children. This part can be put under the power of an attorney or another trustee.

This type of trust ensures that your spouse receives funds and your children have a set inheritance that cannot be changed or altered in any way after your death. Beneficiaries can include your biological children and your step-children.

Even if your current spouse does not get full custody of your child after your death (this may go to their other biological parent), you can still name your current spouse as the executor of your estate so that they can help provide for your child's financial needs using the funds in the trust.

Shared Custody of Children

One of the most common problems with blended families is the issue of shared custody. Custody matters after a divorce differ depending on the specific circumstances surrounding the family. While there are times when one parent is granted sole custody of a child or children, the court often rules that the divorced parents should share custody in some capacity.

This might mean that one parent has physical custody while both parents share legal custody. A child might live with her father and stepmother, but the child's mother has the right to help make decisions about the child's schooling, religion, and other life factors.

Shared custody often takes the form of visitation. A child could live with one parent during the school year and another parent during the summer. Or maybe they spend certain weekends each month with one of their parents. No matter the arrangement, parents should make sure that the rules of their situation are clearly laid out early on to avoid undue stress for the child.

Child Support

Child support is often determined at the time of divorce or confirmation of paternity. Simply put, the parent who does not have physical custody of the child is required to pay funds to help with the day-to-day care of the child.

The child support payment amount is determined by the income of the non-custodial parent. The purpose of these funds is to help with the cost of food, clothes, and other necessities for the child and to ease the burden on the primary caregiver of that child.

Child support can be determined more informally between the parents, in court in the presence of a judge, or through mediation. If parents have joint custody of a child who spends equal time in both homes, then child support may be based on a large disparity in the parents' incomes. This allows the lower-earning parent to cover the costs of the child when the child is in their home.

Spousal Maintenance and Alimony

Another type of financial support that is negotiated during a divorce is spousal maintenance and alimony. While child support is meant to go towards the upkeep of the child, alimony is paid to the spouse. Child support is very commonly required, and many states have set requirements for how much is supposed to be paid until the child is an adult. However, there is much more flexibility in determining alimony.

Alimony is meant to lessen the negative impact of a divorce on a non-wage-earning spouse or a low-wage-earning spouse. In some cases, stay-at-home spouses gave up career opportunities to care for their families, and now that they are divorced, they need time to develop their professional skills and reenter the workforce and support themselves. Alimony payments help them maintain their standard of living until they can pay that for themselves.

Consider Speaking With a Lawyer

Legal issues are difficult for any family, but blended families have unique challenges. Whether you are ready to create new estate planning documents, establish custody, or determine support, consider speaking with an experienced attorney.

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • DIY is possible in some simple cases
  • Complex estate planning situations usually require a lawyer
  • A lawyer can reduce the chances of a family dispute
  • You can always have an attorney review your forms

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