Estate Planning for the ‘Modern Family’

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Estate planning for families today is not what it was just twenty years ago. In that time period, our understanding of the ‘modern family’ has changed significantly.

While the Conner family from the series Roseanne was in stark contrast to the Huxtables from The Cosby Show, both series reflected the ‘traditional’ family dynamic of husband, wife, children, grandparents and in-laws. Today, the hit show Modern Family – entering its eighth season this month - provides a current picture of what we now recognize as the family dynamic. And, each couple in the series can provide insight into the kinds of modern estate planning that today’s families face.

The Dunphy family presents what might be called the typical family situation: mom, dad and kids. For this family, estate planning objectives will likely focus on the protection of the inheritance received by the children. Along with powers of attorney (financial and medical), the Dunphy family will need to be comfortable that they have chosen the best person(s) to raise their children in the event they both pass away. Additionally, during the remainder of the children’s years of minority, financial decisions will need to be made, and the right person should be appointed to make those choices even if it means ‘custody decisions’ are made by one person and ‘financial decisions’ by another. Claire and Phil must also face tough decisions in regard to their own care and should be sure they discuss amongst themselves and their successor appointees what kind of end of life choices they want implemented.

For Jay and Gloria Pritchett, we have the added dymamic of a second marriage, with both spouses having their ‘own’ children as well as a new baby together, not to mention the age difference between Jay and Gloria. Luckily for Jay, there appears to be no overt animosity between Gloria and the children from his first marriage. That said, Jay likely would not opt to leave all of his estate to Gloria; he will want to be sure that his children, Claire and Mitch, are able to inherit from him at this death, and he’ll want to take care of the new baby. Similarly, Gloria will likely not want to leave her estate solely to Jay, as she has Manny and the new baby. Additionally, Gloria has the issue of Manny’s father to address and who should raise Manny in the event of her death. For the Pritchett family, spousal, family and children’s trusts might all be appropriate to allow Jay and Gloria to provide for each other as well as his, her and our children.

Mitch and Cameron represent the newest aspect for today’s estate planners – same-sex couples. Through the recent legalization of same sex marriage, one could take the position that Mitch and Cameron face the same issues in estate planning as Phil and Claire. While that should be the case, there are still challenges to same-sex marriage, and proper planning is still advisable to alleviate any concerns that one’s wishes and intentions will be carried out. For this reason, Cameron and Mitch should consider the same kinds of documents that Phil and Claire have – powers of attorney, guardianship documents for their children, and long-term financial stability that can be provided by trusts for the children. Designating their wishes and formalizing them in written form will go a long way to avoiding any doubt or confusion about their intentions. Additionally, as they have adopted both of their children, there should be no concerns about ‘biological’ parents coming into the picture. That said, the safest bet is to be as explicit as possible in designating the heirs of their estate.

Comedic value aside, Modern Family provides an excellent case-study for today’s estate planners. Each of the three cast families provides unique insight into the kinds of situations that might each be characterized as ‘typical’ in today’s world. The only trend that doesn’t appear on the show is the use of special trusts to provide long-term care for our four-legged family members, but that series might not be too far in the future.

David T. DuFault is an Estate Planning and Business Law Attorney at Sodoma Law, P.C. in Charlotte, North Carolina. DuFault holds a Juris Doctor from Campbell University, Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, a Masters in Accountancy from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Belk College of Business, and a Masters of Laws from The University of Alabama School of Law.