My dad recently told me he wants to marry his girlfriend soon and I am concerned he is rushing his estate planning, particularly as it relates to his children’s inheritance. My dad is 48 years old, and his wife from his second marriage passed away from cancer three years ago.
He was devastated, and I am happy he has found someone who makes him happy. His girlfriend is 49 and they have been dating for 1.5 years. I think it is wonderful they want to get married; however, I want my dad and my family to be financially prepared and protected.
My family was very tight-knit. My grandfather owned two large companies as well as significant real estate, and my parents, aunts and uncles all worked for him. We had weekly family dinners, spent the holidays together and all went on family vacations.
My grandfather and grandmother both passed away from cancer in their mid-50s. My dad and his siblings got a significant inheritance, but distributing the trust completely tore him and his siblings apart. The siblings no longer talk to each other or have any part in each other’s lives.
It was completely devastating to lose our family dynamic, and has been for years since. The last thing I ever want to happen is for something similar to happen again. When my dad told me he wanted to marry I felt like I needed to have an uncomfortable conversation about his estate.
Not an ‘early’ marriage
He is very private about his finances, so it is an uncomfortable thing to bring up. He told me he has a trust that owns everything — real estate and investment accounts — except for a few personal cars. He feels he is protected without a prenuptial agreement.
I am only 23 and would like some advice on having this conversation with my dad. When he sells the business or any of his properties, is it technically the trust selling them? If they were to ever be divorced, would she be entitled to any of it?
If he were to pass away before her, what would happen if she was not a beneficiary of the trust? What are other questions I should ask? Where is the line between wanting to be prepared, and also respecting his privacy? I want to protect my family for the future.
I do not think his girlfriend has any ill intentions. However, my siblings and I are all grown and I don’t think she should be entitled to his estate in the same way as an early marriage. I see her as my dad’s partner and I am very thankful he has that.
I do not see her and her children as deeply integrated into our family as a stepmother, and I don’t regard her children as my siblings. Thank you for any advice you have for me, and for all that I have learned reading your column.
Also see: My partner is against marriage. I’m not on the deed to his home, but he set up a revocable trust in case he dies first. Is this risky?
Think very carefully before you speak. It’s a very delicate subject.
First, the good news: Your feelings about your future stepmother and her children may change, and you may welcome them into your family as warm personalities who have a lot to offer. Now, the bad news: The terms of your father’s trust and last will and testament can change too.
That’s why it’s important for you to proceed cautiously if and/or when you decide to inquire about his estate, and how he intends to structure a will or trust. He may regard your questions as casting a skeptical shadow over his fiancée, assuming they are in the first flush or romance.
It’s a sensitive and special time for your father. The nature of romance — the early days, months and even years of a relationship — often means that one often idealizes their partner, and sees them apart from the harsh realities of everyday life. It may also lead him to be overprotective.
Leave your feelings about your father’s partner and her kids out of the loop. Obviously, he loves her and it’s immaterial whether you regard this as an “early” marriage or not, and see it in a different light. At 23, 49 may seem old. But they could have four decades together.
Stick to the facts, don’t make any personal comments, and be honest about what happened to your father and his siblings. It’s not an uncommon concern; some $16 trillion will be passed from older family members to millennials and Generation X-ers over the next decade.
“Assets in a trust are not subject to equitable distribution unless they contain marital property,” says Jewell Law. “Any money paid from a trust to a beneficiary-spouse remains separate property provided it is maintained in a separate account and not commingled with marital funds.”
Prenups add protections
Remember, no one is entitled to anything. Start the conversation on the right foot by saying a prenup can help your future “stepmother” as much as it could help your father, and outline how it can act as a complement to a revocable trust, laying out other financial issues in greater detail.
Your father has already taken steps to set up a revocable trust for his children, which should protect those assets from any claims from his third wife if they divorce. Unlike a prenuptial agreement, he does not need his girlfriend’s signature to do this.
That said, I favor both a trust and a prenup. A prenup should be created before the wedding day with an attorney. It can also address issues that a trust cannot. These include documenting your premarital assets and liabilities, and how they will be divided in the event of a divorce.
Prenups are useful for alimony and child support. They can also lay out what happens to property if, say, your father dies. He could decide to give her a tenancy for life — that is, live in the house for the rest of her life. Some states even allow for “no-cheating” clauses.
He should update the beneficiaries on his 401(k) and IRA, and on other accounts he wishes to avoid probate, the public accounting of his assets and liabilities. However, some experts advise putting brokerage accounts in a trust to avoid triggering any probate threshold in your state.
It’s possible to be encouraging and pragmatic, assertive and sensitive, practical and helpful. Your father has been through a lot, and you are also getting used to having these new people in your family, but ultimately it’s your father’s life, so know when to give your dad his space.
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