Wills & Rights As a Stepchild

By Robin Elizabeth Margolis

As a stepchild, you do not have the inheritance rights of a biological or adopted child. If your stepparent wants to leave you cash, property or other bequests in a will, he or she must specifically include you in the will. Otherwise, it's possible for you to receive nothing, despite your stepparent's wishes.

Stepchild Inheritance History

A stepchild does not automatically inherit from a stepparent because the American colonial legal system, based on centuries-old British common law, did not support strong legal ties between stepparents and stepchildren due to prevalent negative stepparent stereotypes. While stepparents could leave property to stepchildren in their wills, stepchildren did not have the automatic inheritance rights possessed by biological children and later by adopted children. Throughout the 19th century, stepparents continued to be viewed negatively and have few legal ties to their stepchildren, a situation reflected in popular novels such as Henry James's "What Maisie Knew."

Improved Stepfamily Perceptions

In the 20th century, the pendulum began swinging in the other direction, with favorable media depictions of step-families, including the popular 1969 television show "The Brady Bunch." Despite an improved public perception of stepparents, inheritance laws continued to exclude stepchildren from the inheritance rights of biological and adopted children.

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Stepparent Will

If your stepparent would like to include you in his or her will, your stepparent should specifically mention you by name and spell out what property or other assets are being left to you. Language in a will leaving property to "my children" is considered by the courts to include only biological and adopted children.

Intestate Succession

If your stepparent dies without making a will -- a condition called "dying intestate" -- state laws will likely divide the inheritance between your stepparent's legal spouse and any biological and adopted children and grandchildren, a process known as "intestate succession." If your stepparent has no legal spouse, children or grandchildren, the inheritance would then go to parents, siblings and other biological and adoptive relatives -- but not to you.

Stepchild Adoption

One way your stepparent can make certain you are treated as a legal child for inheritance purposes is to legally adopt you. If you are underage, both of your current legal parents would have to consent to this procedure. If you are an adult, you do not need your biological or adoptive parents' consent in order to be adopted by your stepparent.

Other Methods of Providing for Stepchildren

Your stepparent also has other ways to leave you money, property and other assets outside of a will, including setting up a revocable living trust, annuity or joint ownership of property with you.

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How to Exclude Stepchildren From Your Estate



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Rights of a Stepdad vs. the Biological Father

A biological father, also known as a birth father, has stronger legal rights over his child than the child's stepdad. American law favors biological fathers over stepfathers. If you are a stepfather, you can use various legal procedures to strengthen your rights to a stepchild, including obtaining a power of attorney from your stepchild's biological father, putting your stepchild into your will and other estate planning documents, and legally adopting your stepchild.

Common-Law Marriage Responsibilities for Children From a Previous Marriage

If you have entered a common-law marriage and have children living with you who are your spouse's biological or adopted children from a previous relationship, the children will likely be considered your legal stepchildren. You have the same obligations to them that you would have if you had formally married your spouse.

Children's Rights in Estate Wills

Your state’s laws determine who inherits your assets if you don’t have a valid will when you die; your spouse and children are among the first to receive property from your estate. However, you can change this “default” distribution scheme by creating a will describing how you want your property to be distributed. Your will can give inheritance rights to your children, though you cannot disinherit your spouse under most circumstances, even if you want to give his share to your children.

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