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Estate Planning in Blended Families
Is there a cultural norm to manage inheritance in a thrice blended family?  I am a 67 year old man working on estate planning facing difficult issues resulting from the "blend" of my family over the years.   I have two daughters from my first marriage, raised primarily by their mother, and two step-daughters, whom I raised as my own, from my second marriage.  My first wife and I divorced after 10 years, and my second wife died after 18 years.  I have been married to my third wife for 19 years.  She has a child and step child of her own but we have no children together.  I feel obligated to take care of her in my estate planning but also have a duty to my own children, and want to recognize my step children from my second marriage.  In addition to a prosperous career, I also inherited a good deal of property from my own parents, and my current wife feels entitled to it to maintain her comfort, at the expense of my children.  All of my children work hard, are self supporting, with good jobs and I feel it would be wrong not to recognize them, but my wife feels that I do not love her if I don't leave everything to her.  I'm afraid she will make us all miserable if I don't do as she wishes, but my own children are likely to be resentful if I do.  This is becoming a very divisive issue within the family and I would like to put the question out there for thoughts. 
Jen, I think your gut feeling that you have a responsibility to be fair to all of those you love -- and in particular to your children as well as your current wife -- is spot-on. Just because you marry someone new does not mean you stop being a father to your children, nor that you love them any less. I find it rather awful that your current wife equates love with resources and property. If you were to lose everything now would she still love you or would she leave you for someone more fortunate? You can explain to her quite frankly that you do not feel women are helpless beings who need to be "paid" and "rewarded" for putting up with men by receiving a large payment as a prize. You are unequivocally demonstrating your love to her by giving her your most prized possession, namely, the remaining years of your life -- this is much more valuable than money. You are right to be offended if she does not consider that a gift. Of course, you would like to provide for her to live comfortably, but I'm sure you can do this with a small amount of your total estate.

I think it is perfectly reasonable also to leave money to your alma mater, to charities which are important to you. You are a three-dimensional person, you have done many things in your life, loved many people; you have a large family of children and even ex-lovers and ex-wives and it is not unreasonable to leave something to many of them. Much has gone into making you who you are and it is unreasonable for any one person to take credit and expect a reward.

Given that your children can support themselves, just as you were doubtless able to support yourself when your parents left you the property you mention, the issue is less financial than it is moral. As you mention, leaving property to your wife is not a matter of life and death either. If you choose to give all your money to charity, you're still being fair. If you choose to support your current wife in luxury while not leaving anything to your children, you are sending a strong message of preference which will leave bitterness and hurt. 

As a side note, given that this is such an issue, if I were you I would not really discuss the extent of your current wealth with your current wife. Why give her something to scheme over or worry about -- it will only bring out the worst in her, and she doubtless also has good qualities or you would not be with her. Hire a good lawyer, open some other bank accounts and make sure you have the freedom to do what you feel is right.

In response to Emily Andrews

Thanks for your insightful post.  I'm finding it difficult to be both supportive of my wife, whom I've made a partner in all things, and my children, to whom she is not a parent.  I value her happiness, without it, we are all miserable.  My children were grown when we married, still getting established so we have both helped them, but I've been reminded lately that she is not mother to them. 

You mentioned the "moral" issue.  Yes, I was financially established when my parents left me the property, that was left to them by their parents.  Do you feel I have a moral duty to pass that on to my natural children, or would it be equally moral to divide it between them, my step-children, and my wife?"   The law only demands that I take care of my wife. 

My late wife left property only to her natural children, but my current wife believes that because my natural children do not have children of their own, it should pass to those who do, my step-children and her.  My own children grew up primarily with their mother but I am close to the youngest, who with my encouragement, had the opportunity to settle near me.  She and I rarely have a disagreement, but this issue has sent her into a tail-spin as I had originally promised a large portion of the family legacy to her. 

I wish to live out my days, however many more I have, in peace and do not wish this to be a divisive issue between me and my wife, and my children and it's easier to get away from the children, and it appears my wife will not be happy unless she wins, and she does not feel my children are "entitled" to anything.  I love them all and I am too old to start over, but I'm afraid that in a blended family of four daughters and a wife, the scheming you speak of has been an undercurrent for many years.  I'm looking for some moral ground on which to make peace with all of them and help them make peace with one another.  All thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

In response to Jen lee
Here is one additional question to consider, what effect did it have on your life that your parents left you property? How would you have felt if they had given it all to someone else (or to charity)? Would this have affected your love for them or your memory of them if you felt they had done this deliberately? This isn't a leading question. Everyone has a different relation to wealth.

You also mention another factor, your prior promise to your youngest daughter. Are you considering going back on that promise? I hope you are not one of those men who holds money over women's heads as a way of making them be nice to him... you don't sound like such a person, don't play one.

Regardless of your ultimate decision, the almost tongue-in-cheek rationale (the children are "easier to get away from" and your wife can make you miserable) should be avoided at all cost -- such a way of acting seems to me pathetic, and I use that word in its strong sense: it is a decision of someone cowed by a local bully and unwilling to actually think through the morality of what they are doing. I guess another way of saying this would be:

1. Suppose your wife were putting no pressure on you. What would you do? That is, objectively evaluate her case, taking into account the good points Solveig raised below.

But then once you have a figure ask yourself how her current behavior factors in, i.e.:

2. Do you find the act of putting pressure on you and causing divisiveness throughout the family to be deserving of financial reward or penalty?
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Latest Post: May 22, 2011 at 12:59 PM
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