Yours, Mine, Ours and Theirs Part 2: Opening the Conversation

Spring Flowers

Spring Flowers

This article from last June in The Huffington Post cites a Pew Research Center number from 2011 which states that a whopping 42% of American adults have a step relationship – as in step-parent, step- or half-sibling, or step-child.  I suspect the numbers have risen since that study….

It is not surprising that with the large number of remarriages involving children from a prior relationship, some of the basic priorities in estate planning can be much more fluid and complex.  In the title of this series I have added “theirs” at the end of “yours, mine and ours” – and this is for the simple reason that, in my experience, many spouses in a blended family relationship wish to preserve for their own descendants a certain portion of their estate.  In my experience with blended family estate planning, many spouses in blended family later life relationships consider their children’s inheritance as something separate in a way that few people married only to each other and with common children have ever done.  So let’s begin with identifying some of the terrain we will cover.

The Questions. . . .

What are the common goals that both spouses have in mind?

First off is the obvious question – how to provide for your adult children while taking care of your surviving spouse?  Considering things like life insurance, retirement benefits and other available resources can be immensely helpful, particularly when these resources are coordinated in such a way as to meet the common identified goals.  Since I represent primarily older adults with grown children, I won’t be looking at the second family and providing for them along with a spouse as well as from a first marriage?  How do we balance providing for children with providing for the surviving spouse?  Well, I must repeat that lawyer mantra here: it depends.  The fact is – there is no template for the values, choices, or goals of spouses in a blended family and how they provide for their respective children.  Yes, life is getting more complicated all the time it seems, but I would submit that with the exploration of some basic information, many otherwise inevitable conflicts can be avoided or at least minimized!  This is why it is so important to identify these questions that can loom large and cause much anxiety.

The Nature of Potential Conflict . . .

When a couple can identify the goals and values of their planning, developing a strategy for meeting them can become a bit simpler (note – I did not say easy – there is a huge difference between simple and easy!).  Identifying the source of conflict that can arise, which can threaten those values and goas the couple has identified, is a simple but powerful way of bringing more daylight into the conversation.  Talking about personality conflicts, communication styles and how to allocate scarce resources – be they common or separate resources, can have a positive impact on the planning process.  If this all sounds like a bit too much, I would submit that this groundwork laying is imperative and indeed makes for going early on in the process.  Perhaps you are familiar with the expression to go slow at the beginning to go fast later.  Reminds me of a favorite Ella Fitzgerald song!

The Varying Styles of Conflict Among People . . .

Important to consider here are some of the stumbling blocks that many of us place in front of this conversation, as well as those which may arise and otherwise derail a constructive and wanted conversation on this topic.  What I am talking about here is how each of us deals with conflict in terms of how we communicate in the midst of conflict.  There are five basic conflict communication styles:

  • Confrontation
  • Accommodation
  • Compromise
  • Conciliation
  • Avoidance

Many of us do not exclusively rely on a single style here, and that is a good thing!  What the conflict styles can teach us – and how this conversation can enrich and deepen a relationship among spouses – is about values (the first item I wrote about above) and how they shape who we are and how we behave.   Our perceptions and assumptions about who we are, who our spouse is and how the children of the blended family are included in the planning (either directly or indirectly) can be valuable ways to explore the depth of a relationship and chart a course through otherwise troubled waters.

I’m not saying that a plan is going to be 100% foolproof – I would not say that because everything is subject to change.  What I’m saying is that it is better to talk about the elephant in the room, to identify its function for shedding light on our goals and values of the spousal and family relationships we have.

More to come!

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org