Want to Bring Two Families Together? First, Check the Law

Blended families have been the focus of two of the most popular sitcoms of all time. From 1969-74, “The Brady Bunch” shared the ups and downs of Mike and Carol Brady and their six kids. Since 2009, “Modern Family” has offered an updated take on the topic through the lens of patriarch Jay Pritchett’s family.

While stepfamilies were more unusual in the Brady Bunch era, more people can relate to the circumstances of the Pritchett’s today. The Pritchett family includes Jay’s two adult children from a first marriage and young son from a later marriage. In addition, his gay son Mitchell and Mitchell’s husband Cameron have an adopted daughter.

Are you ready to embark on a family journey of your own?

Unlike the happy outcomes that typically come at the end of a 30-minute sitcom, real-life blended families can face a number of issues when parents aren’t on the same page about stepchildren or should disagreements snowball to the point that the marriage ends in divorce.

Taking time to set expectations, learn about legal obligations and plan for the future can help reduce unnecessary stress and financial disputes down the road. Consider the following steps before you walk down the aisle:

Have a frank conversation with your future spouse about expectations for any children involved.

It isn’t unusual for spouses to enter a marriage with differing views on how they will financially support their children and for how long. This can be especially complicated if one of the parties wants to support their children to a degree beyond what the typical American family does. Some scenarios to discuss include:

  • How long will you financially support children post-minority (after age 18)?
  • Will you pay for private schooling, tutors, coaches, college, grad school, etc.?
  • What extracurricular activities do you (or don’t you) want children to take part in?
  • Will you pay for adult children’s weddings, first homes, cars, vacations, etc.?

It’s important to have this discussion up front, because, if community property is used to pay for some of these things, they could be subject to a reimbursement claim in the event of a divorce.

Understand your legal rights and obligations regarding children and stepchildren.

Parties who decide to get divorced and have been financially supporting stepchildren during the marriage are typically under no obligation to continue supporting those stepchildren following divorce.

That isn’t to say that the party who receives spousal support and/or child support for shared children can’t use that money to support children from a previous relationship. Texas family courts are very limited in terms of what they can do regarding stepchildren.

Another issue that can arise with blended families is when one of the stepchildren is “bad news.” For example, the child may do drugs or bring drug paraphernalia into the home, use bad language, be disrespectful, suffer from mental illness or be a bad influence on other children in the home. Parties can ask the court to prohibit the parent from allowing that stepchild to be in the presence of other children in the family.

Consider spelling out your wishes for stepchildren in a premarital (or post-marital) agreement.

Parties who want to ensure stepchildren are provided for beyond age 18 or in the event of a divorce or death can do so by agreeing to and signing a premarital or post-marital agreement. These agreements may require a spouse to pay for certain expenses, such as private school, college, extracurricular activities, health insurance, medical bills or even a financial settlement for the stepchild upon the stepparent’s death.

Premarital and post-marital agreements can also include language that stipulates that any money the party or parties earn and spend on stepchildren or children outside of the marriage would not be reimbursable and the party or parties waive any claim to reimburse them in the event of a divorce.

Contact a reputable family law attorney for advice

Since laws vary from state to state, it’s important to speak with a family law attorney who is familiar with the laws pertaining to stepchildren in the jurisdiction where you live. He or she can guide you on how to ensure your children or stepchildren are provided for during marriage and in the event of a divorce or your or your spouse’s death.

Abby Gregory is a compassionate Dallas divorce attorney with a substantial record in litigation, collaboration and Texas family law. A graduate of Fordham University College of Law, Abby committed herself to community service during her tenure at Fordham and received the Archibald R. Murray Public Service Award, summa cum laude, based on her extensive pro bono and community work for Lawyers for Children, the Innocence Project and others. To learn more about divorce and child custody in Dallas and Collin Counties, please call 214-306-8441 to speak confidentially with a member of the Connatser Family Law team.

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