Many stepparents come to know and love their stepchildren as their own, and so completely that it can be hard to remember the law doesn’t always see it that way.

When parents begin the process and practice of estate planning, they need to take active and affirmative steps if they want to prevent stepchildren from being treated very differently from biological children.

Dying without a will leaves stepchildren out

When any Wisconsinite dies without a will, a state probate court must decide how to handle the debts and assets of the deceased. In a sense, Wisconsin law is your will if you die without making one. For some, this thought is a powerful incentive to begin estate planning.

When it comes to probate, Wisconsin does not recognize the role of stepparent or stepchild. The court will not regard the stepchild as the deceased’s family member and the stepchild will generally be left out of any inheritance.

A will or a trust can count stepchildren in

A properly drafted will explicitly calling for stepchild inheritance stands a far better chance of getting the deceased’s intentions for a stepchild carried out.

A will can distribute assets to survivors almost any way the deceased wishes. While disagreements between family members may occur, a proper will can settle these matters, if not necessarily end differences of opinion.

A trust may be an even more powerful tool

Trusts can to a do everything a will can do and much more. They often give better protection from creditors, maintain much greater privacy, reduce estate taxes and ensure many other advantages wills cannot provide. A correctly established trust can also make the “stepchild” status irrelevant.

Adopting stepchildren in Wisconsin makes them family

Yet another strategy is for the stepparent to adopt the stepchild. Wisconsin law treats adoptees no differently from biological children, even if the adoptee is an adult stepchild. Perhaps obviously, many find the adoption of stepchildren to be an emotionally meaningful experience.

Depending on the details, stepchild adoption can be very straightforward or challenging if not impossible. If the adoptee is an adult, the process is likely to be simple. Adopting a minor stepchild may involve complications, especially if another biological parent is still in the picture.