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Do Step-Children Inherit

Do Step-Children Inherit from Step-Parents?


If you’re part of a blended family, you might be wondering, do step-children inherit anything from their step-parents?

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The rising divorce rates have caused a substantial increase in the number of step-children in blended families, so it’s important to understand how the law may affect your step-children and inheritance distribution if there is no proper will or estate plan in place.


An estate plan and pour-over will ensures that upon your death, your estate and property will be inherited by the people who are important to you. Wills are especially important in cases where the law has different preferences than your own.


When inheritance is concerned, the legal rights of step-children are less appreciated. There are several cases where step-parents are not willing to leave a single penny towards their step-children, but in many instances, the relationship between a step-child and their step-parents is strong and loving and parents want to bequeath some part of their inheritance to them.



Do Step-Children Inherit: What Are the Laws in California?

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Unfortunately, California does treat biological children differently than step-children when it comes to inheritance and intestate succession.


If you pass away without a will, the legal term for this is "intestacy." Your estate is subject to California’s intestate succession laws. These laws provide an order of which of your surviving family members have the right to inherit from your estate.


Depending on the family’s situation, the order generally follows:


  1. Spouses

  2. Children

  3. Siblings

  4. Parents

  5. Grandparents


The term “Children” though only refers to your biological children or legally adopted children under the law. Step-children are not included under this definition and will be completely excluded from inheriting any portion of the estate. If none of these blood relatives can be located, the assets may ultimately be distributed to the state of California.


The point is that intestate succession laws in California provide no way for your step-child to automatically inherit without a will. To get around this, the step-child must be legally adopted or you must include them in your estate plan.


But there is one exception you should know.


If a step-parent dies and has not made a will, a law under “Probate Code 6454” has been passed providing step-children the right during intestate succession if:


a. The relationship between the step-child and the step-parent began when the step-child was still very young, and they continued that relationship throughout their lifetimes.


b. The step-parent intended to adopt the step-child but faced legal challenges, such as pushback from the child’s other biological parent.


Thus both elements, (a) and (b) of the foregoing statute, need to be satisfied to claim an intestate of step-children and inheritance from a step-parent. If both elements cannot be satisfied the step-child is a nobody for purposes of intestate succession and receives nothing.


If a step-child cannot show a colorable claim under Probate Code 6454, there is an alternate route available. A step-child can assert a claim of equitable adoption. "To take as an equitably adopted child from the alleged adoptive parent's intestate estate, the claimant must prove the decedent's intent to adopt by clear and convincing evidence."



Including Your Step-children in Your Estate Plan

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While there is no legal obligation to leave step-children an inheritance, it may be the best choice when there’s a close relationship or the step-parent has played a significant role in raising the child.


If you want your step-child to inherit from you, you can purposely structure your estate to pass in part to your step-children by doing some estate planning which can help you work around the laws of California to ensure your step-children are not left out.


If you have biological children and a step-child, it's not enough to state "children" in your will or trust, as that leaves out the step-child. You must specifically name your step-children in your will or trust. If you already have a will but haven't included your step-child, you must update your will to include them by name.


It is a must to hire an experienced estate planning attorney who can easily draft an estate plan that includes all children, biological and step-children, in the plan.


If you do not wish to create a will or estate plan, another option to protect step-children and include them in intestate inheritance is to adopt them. California’s intestacy laws consider adopted children the same as biological heirs for an intestate inheritance, and your step-children and inheritance would then get in fair distribution.


One final option is to name assets that would not be included in intestate inheritance to your step-children. Assets that require a beneficiary or are co-owned do not pass through the intestate process. Examples of these assets are:


  • Property owned in joint tenancy or with a right to survivorship

  • Vehicles with transfer-on-death registration

  • Payable-on-death bank accounts

  • Securities held with transfer-on-death accounts

  • Retirement funds like an IRA, 401(k), or pension fund with a designated beneficiary

  • Life insurance proceeds

  • Property placed in a living trust


These assets transfer directly to the person named on death, avoiding the intestate inheritance process altogether. Naming step-children as the beneficiaries of these types of assets can ensure that they receive some inheritance from the estate without the need to create an entire estate plan or draft a will.


You will need to keep in mind that any gift you leave to your step-child will reduce the amount of property available to the other beneficiaries. If you expect that this will cause conflict, it would be helpful to explain these decisions to all family members in advance.


By engaging in an open and honest dialogue, you can minimize the potential for family squabbles and the possibility of a will contest. During the conversation, you could clarify why you included each beneficiary (including step-children), why you selected the person who will serve as your executor, and your thoughts about the family. So think it all through, before making it legal.


Leaving an estate plan and pour-over will is the best and smart way to ensure that heirs or descendants may inherit from your estate. Issues including step-children and inheritance distribution may arise when a birth parent or adoptive parent dies without making a valid will or without naming an heir to a particular property (referred to as intestacy). In these cases, state law determines who may inherit from whom.



Are You Ready to Update Your Estate Plan to Incorporate Your Step-children?

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While a step-child usually doesn't have any rights as a beneficiary, there are ways to specifically include them.


My name is Andrea Aston, and as a skilled and trusted trust and estate planning attorney in Southern California, I can promise to use my knowledge and experience as an estate lawyer to help make sure that your step-children will receive the assets you choose to leave.


I’ll guide you with thorough and thoughtful estate planning advice. Having an experienced lawyer by your side will give you confidence and peace of mind.


To schedule a free consultation for your estate planning needs, call me today at (760) 758-1565 to talk about how we can help make sure all of your loved ones, including your step-children, are provided for according to your wishes after you are gone.


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