The so-called “traditional” family structure – a mother and a father, on their first marriage, raising children together – is no longer the norm. Fewer than half of American children live in this type of situation, according to Pew Research, a significant change from just a few decades earlier.

This shift is being driven by the increased rates of divorce, remarriage and cohabitation. In turn, we have had to update how we define a family unit. These new situations, while wonderful to see, do present some added challenges when it comes to estate planning.

How to start estate planning

State inheritance laws, written long ago, don’t do a satisfactory job accounting for blended family arrangements. This means you need to take proactive steps to ensure your legacy lives on as you hope.

To start, consider your goals. This means outlining:

  • The individuals who should take on important roles
  • The loved ones to whom you would like to pass assets
  • The assets you want to give each of these people
  • How to pass those assets down

Protecting your wishes

That last point in the list above is, arguably, the most important. You can scribble notes on a sheet of paper or mentally answer estate planning questions. If you do not have a valid will or have not taken steps to protect your property, it will not matter. State law may take over and divvy up your possessions and assets according to its rules – regardless of if it is best for your family.

This is important for anyone, but takes on additional weight if you are part of a blended family. Stepchildren and unmarried partners, for example, are generally overlooked in inheritance laws. Valuable property you would like to pass to one of them may end up going to a former spouse because of these statutes.

A combination of a thorough will plus applicable trusts, written based on your particular goals, is often a sufficient starting point. Beneficiary designations, which take precedence over the will, should also be reviewed.

Taking the time now to ensure your estate plan reflects the legacy you want to leave can provide peace of mind. Not just for you, but your loved ones as well.