How to write a will when you have step-children

10 December 2020

Inheritance laws in England and Wales don't automatically recognise step-children. So you need to make a will which specifies who inherits what, or your estate could be distributed to people you wouldn't have chosen.

Why do step-children complicate wills?

Inheritance laws, called the rules of intestacy, don't recognise step-children.

If you would like your step-children to inherit from your estate, but you don't make a will expressing these wishes, then your step-children have no automatic right to inherit from your estate. Only your biological or adopted children do, and even that can depend on whether you are married and the value of your estate when you die.

If you are in a relationship you might want to provide for your partner if you die first. It's important to know that whoever you name as your main beneficiary will inherit everything from your estate and they can then pass this on in any way they wish. If your partner has children (who are your step-children) then your step-children could then receive everything when your partner dies, with any children you have from a previous relationship inheriting nothing from you.

Even if you and your partner agree that the children will receive what is rightfully theirs after the other person dies, you can't be certain this will actually happen. Family disputes could arise after your death, or your partner may even re-marry or enter a new civil partnership. This could mean their new partner will stand to inherit your estate.

Without a will, your spouse or civil partner will be your main beneficiary under the rules of intestacy. Under these rules, any biological children you have will receive significantly less than your partner, or even nothing. Your step-children will then be in line to inherit your partner's estate when they die.

How to write a will if you have step-children

If you have step-children, you need to decide exactly what you want to happen to your estate after your death. The law in England and Wales provides for 'testamentary freedom', meaning you can leave everything you own to whoever you choose. This might be your own children, it might be your step-children, or it might be neither.

You then need to speak to a specialist will writer about your wishes. Be sure to explain your family circumstances. The will writer can then advise how best to write your will to make sure that your estate is distributed in the way you want after your death. The way this is done will depend on your wishes, but there are various options available, which your will writer can talk you through.

If you do want to leave an inheritance to your step-children, then you will need to make this expressly clear in the terms of your will. For example, you must say that you leave 20% of your estate to your step-child Ben, and 20% of your estate to your step-child Rebecca.

But if you do not want to leave an inheritance to your step-children, then you must name your chosen beneficiaries. It is then a good idea to leave a Letter of Wishes alongside your will, explaining why you have decided to distribute your estate in this way. If possible also have an open discussion with those who would be impacted to explain your wishes during your lifetime to let them air their views, to help you understand whether they disagree and try to resolve any issues. This will limit the chance of your will being challenged after you die.

However, this still leaves the tricky situation of providing for your partner if you die before them. It is possible to ensure that your partner is taken care of during their lifetime, without your estates becoming entwined. A good option is to create a trust in your will.

Depending on the terms of the trust, this could provide your partner with a home and an income for the remainder of their life. But when they die your estate can then pass to whoever you have named as your beneficiaries.

Professionally drafted wills

Families are complicated, but this doesn't mean you can't distribute your estate according to your wishes. To achieve this, you need a professionally drafted will that takes into account the intricacies of your family life.

Making a will can be quick and easy when you receive the right guidance, especially when you have a specialist will writer to help you complete each step from start to finish. At Co-op Legal Services our will writing advisors can discuss your wishes, offer guidance and help you to make a will that's right for you and your family.

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