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Careful estate plan language protects California step-heirs

California family members come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of closeness. Step relatives, half-siblings and unmarried partnerships are as common today as they were once scarce. Attorneys caution individuals who are building estate plans to be extremely careful when naming heirs.

Wills, trusts and other estate planning documents must be clearly interpreted by probate judges, trustees, heirs and beneficiaries to understand a decedent's exact, final wishes. A phrase with possible multiple meanings can confuse a court or lead to a legal conflict among loved ones.

A will's reference to "children" is an example. An individual may use the term collectively to describe biological, adopted, foster kids, grandchildren or stepchildren. A court views relationships from a legal perspective. While biological and adopted children automatically have a legal link to the decedent, other children in a person's life may not.

For a will to show that heirs include relationships that are not connected by DNA or legal bonds, the reference to an heir must be direct. A document that states that an asset is meant for a stepchild should include the child's name to erase doubt that the heir is deserving of an inheritance.

Vague language can unintentionally exclude heirs from the proceeds of an estate. A decedent is not present at the time an estate plan is explained to heirs and beneficiaries. It is imperative that the message you want to send is translated properly.

In many cases, a small error in estate plan wording can be corrected by an agreement among other inheritors. Legal experts also say that it only takes one heir's disagreement to keep such a peaceful resolution from happening.

Individuals with estate plans often spend a majority of the time concerned with the preservation of assets. Estate planning attorneys advise that financial matters should be a high priority, but the language used to transition assets must be precise to avoid any possible conflicts.

Source:, "ESTATE PLANNING: Planning for stepchildren," Christopher W. Yugo, Feb. 23, 2013

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