Stepchildren and Wills
Current American state inheritance laws grew out of colonial laws that followed the British preference for biological children born in wedlock as heirs under wills. This inheritance preference was later expanded in American state laws to include adoptive children, but not stepchildren. If you make a will and do not specifically include your stepchildren by name in your will and other estate planning documents, they will not be entitled to inherit anything from you.
Stepchildren and Intestate Succession
In a majority of the states, if you die without making a will, known as dying intestate, your property will be distributed under your state's intestate succession laws, which typically divide your property between your spouse and your biological and adoptive children. Your stepchildren receive nothing. If you have no spouse or children, your estate is then divided among your biological relatives. State courts have considered a legal theory called "equitable adoption," which permits a court to treat stepchildren as if their stepparent had meant to adopt them but failed to complete the paperwork. This theory would allow stepchildren the same inheritance rights as adoptive children under intestate succession. However, the theory has not been widely accepted.
Intestate Laws Exceptions
A few states will allow your stepchildren to inherit your property if you die without a will. California passed the first law authorizing this in 1983. The California law requires that your stepchild must have a long-term, lasting relationship with you and evidence must exist that you wanted to adopt your stepchild but you were prevented by a legal barrier. As of 2011, six other states -- Ohio, Connecticut, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri -- have also passed laws allowing intestate succession inheritance for stepchildren. These state laws essentially allow your stepchildren to inherit under intestate succession only if you have no surviving biological relatives at all.
Indirect Stepchildren Inheritance
Your stepchildren can inherit property indirectly from you, even if you wish to exclude them. If you leave your property through your will to a spouse who is the biological or adoptive parent of your stepchildren, or you die without a will and your estate goes to that spouse, your spouse can then legally give your property to your stepchildren.
Stepchildren Estate Exclusion
To ensure that your stepchildren do not inherit from your estate, you may wish to revise your current will or make a new will specifically excluding them by name. You may also wish to remove your stepchildren's names from all other estate planning, joint ownership and financial documents. If you want to prevent your spouse from leaving your property to your stepchildren after your death, you could consult an estate planning expert about creating a trust that would give your spouse income from your estate during your spouse's lifetime, but would pass the property to someone other than your stepchildren after your spouse's death.