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Estate planning in complex family situations

Between 1996 and 2018, the number of unmarried couples throughout the country who were cohabiting grew from 6 million to more than 19 million. This is only one example of the rise in nontraditional family structures. People in New York may be more likely to live as part of blended families or to be divorced or single parents than in previous generations. This can mean that much estate planning advice, which is structured for more traditional families, may not apply.

For example, people should consider where there might be misunderstandings using legal terms such as "descendants" and "issue". Adopted children or stepchildren could be inadvertently excluded. An unmarried partner could be shut out by a dead partner's family. People should also consider how their family best communicates. Individual meetings with financial advisers may work better than large family meetings in some cases.

Trusts can be useful documents in complex family situations, but they may need adjustments. Instead of a traditional trust that pays out income to a beneficiary until that person's death, at which point the remainder goes to another beneficiary, the settlor might want to give a trustee discretion to make distributions. A person may be appointed who can add beneficiaries. A trust protector to supervise the trustee might also be appointed. Decanting provisions can allow necessary changes to the trust.

It is also important for a person to prepare for the possibility of becoming incapacitated. Some of this preparation may also be done with a trust, or a person might prefer to use powers of attorney to appoint people to make medical and financial decisions. Communication with family members about the intentions for the estate plan may help reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and challenges. People should also update the plan regularly in case there are changes in tax law, their assets or their family.

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