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DEFINITIONS OF FAMILY: YOURS VS. THE STATE’S

Friday, December 7th, 2012 by

With the holiday season in full swing, you are likely thinking about and spending time with your loved ones, your “family.”  Chances are, they are not all related to you by blood.  Most of us have spouses, in-laws, stepchildren, stepparents, or even friends that we consider to be part of our family.  Sometimes we are more tightly bonded with these people than with our actual blood relations.

Unfortunately, the state of Florida defines “family” much more narrowly for the purposes of intestate succession (who gets your stuff if you die without a will).  Your current spouse is your closest family member under Florida law and will get everything if you have a “traditional” family.  However, as soon as you get into a blended family situation – i.e. either you or your spouse had a child with someone else – things get messy.  Your spouse will have to split your assets with your kids in the proportions dictated by the state, regardless of what you would have wanted.  Stepchildren are left out altogether because they are not considered “family” unless you have legally adopted them.

Florida law’s preference for blood relatives can produce even less desirable results if you die without a spouse, children, or a will.  We recently had a case where a man’s assets, primarily his home, were split between more than a dozen blood relatives (siblings, nieces and nephews), many of whom did not even speak to the decedent, rather than going to the few people, including his girlfriend of many years, who actually took care of him.

The state’s intestate definition of “family” is one size fits all, meaning that it often fits no one.  If you don’t agree with the people that definition includes and, especially, excludes, you need to make your definition of family clear with a will or trust.

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