I love my daughter and my stepdaughter. How do we make our will fair to both of them? | Leading questions

Like kayaks and Ikea, wills can turn functional families into bickering messes, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. You’re right to proceed with care

I am happily married to my wife of five years and have a stepdaughter and a daughter. I love both of them and am a little confused about our will. My stepdaughter has her dad, and he has no other children. How do we distribute our assets fairly between our daughters? Is there a fair proportion? Does my daughter receive all my assets prior to my marriage?

My stepdaughter’s dad does have a home and both these homes are of equal value. How about assets after marriage? I do not want to create a rift between my daughters.

Eleanor says: Wills have this weird ability to bring out the worst in people – conflicts you didn’t know were there, stubbornness you didn’t know they had. It’s one of the only things wills have in common with kayaks, or Ikea – they can turn an otherwise functional family into a bickering, exhausted mess.

So you’re right to proceed with care here.

There are two different goals you could have in estate planning. One could be to take care of loved ones in proportion to the most help your money could do. The other is to try to minimise the possibility of conflict. These are going to show up differently in how you allocate assets. If avoiding conflict is the priority, you might wind up doing straight 50/50: making contributions of the same absolute amount but of different proportionate significance.

But if the goal is to instead allocate in proportion to family history or financial effect, there will necessarily be different net amounts.

You know this, obviously, but it can be easy to miss the upshot – you can’t necessarily do both things at once. Prioritising one might mean scrapping the other. So your first task is to figure out which arrangement you can stand by.

I can’t advise you on the material decision – a solicitor with experience preparing wills will be able to tell you what sorts of arrangements people use in blended families.

But I wanted to spend some time with your remark that you “don’t want to cause a rift”.

Part of the reason estate planning curdles families so quickly is that people use it to exercise the feelings they weren’t able to express when their loved one was alive. That might be a grievance, or a sense of being neglected – or it might just be the feeling of helplessness that comes after someone we love has died. Death is so abruptly non-negotiable that it can make us feel impotent and angry. So absent any way to use those feelings to change the facts of death, we put them into changing something daft like who gets the teaspoons.

It’s totally possible your loving family will be sensible enough not to sublimate feelings like that. But there are things you can do to help avoid that possibility.

One is to avoid surprise. Whatever you decide, it might be good to clue your daughters in now, so there’s no risk of a moment where the will is read and everybody gasps. That way any sense of unfairness can be talked through before it is wrapped up with grief and shock.

And, if you’re going to allocate funds differently because of your stepdaughter’s dad, you could make sure those background beliefs are correct. You don’t want to give her less because you assume she’ll be taken care of, then find he planned to leave everything to charity, or sell the home and downsize.

The decision over what to leave behind can be a difficult one, and so are the conversations we have about those choices while we’re still here. But hard as it is, talking it through can help make sure things go the way we want them to.


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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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