Inheritance Rights of Stepchildren

With the divorce rate in the United States averaging around 50 percent, it’s understandable why we have millions of blended families. Since there are so many complicated family situations, a lot of Americans have questions about the inheritance rights of both biological and stepchildren.

For example, let’s say that a man had two children with his first wife. A victim of parental alienation, his adult children from his first marriage refuse to speak to him. Moving on with his life, he later remarried a wonderful woman with a one-year-old daughter and went on to raise her as his own.

From the beginning, the man we’ll call “John” developed a deep bond with his second wife’s baby girl. He was the only father she ever knew and he went on to pay for her college and her wedding.

John didn’t think about formally adopting his stepdaughter and fearing his own mortality, he never got around to drafting a will. When John died suddenly of a heart attack, half of his estate was passed on to his two adult children who he hasn’t seen or heard from in 50 years, and meanwhile his beloved stepdaughter who was a single mother raising three children of her own didn’t receive a penny.

Intestate Succession Laws

How could this happen? Stepchildren do not have the same inheritance rights as biological and adopted children. If a stepparent wants to leave a stepchild any part of their estate, they must leave specific bequests in a will. Otherwise, the stepchild could receive nothing, even if that was not the stepparent’s intentions.

If a stepparent dies without creating a will, it is said that he or she died “intestate.” When people die intestate, state laws govern which family members inherit the decedent’s estate. While the state laws vary from state-to-state, generally the assets are passed down to the surviving spouse, biological and adopted children, biological and adopted grandchildren, and in some cases the decedent’s parents.

If the decedent died without a living spouse or biological or adopted children, their inheritance would most likely go to their surviving parents and not their stepchildren, even if they raised the stepchildren as their own since they were in daycare or preschool.

If you would like to bequeath assets to your stepchildren, you will need to specify your wishes in a will and/or a trust. To get started, contact an estate planning attorney for legal advice.