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In blended families, inheritances often end up being unequal

As more divorced parents with children remarry, a changing pattern has developed in inheritances. Couples who only have shared biological children tend to divide their bequests equally among those children. According to a 2015 study, there has been a noticeable shift toward unequal bequests in blended families.

The study considered parents over age 50 who reported having wills. Overall, the number of parents treating their children unequally in their estate plans rose from 16 percent in 1995 to 35 percent in 2010. Moreover, parents who have stepchildren were about 30 percent more likely to leave unequal bequests.

Estate planning and family lawyers interviewed by TheStreet said this trend is well known. There are any number of scenarios that lead to unequal bequests, but one of the most prominent is elder financial abuse by the stepparent.

According to the author of The Wolf at the Door: Undue Influence and Elder Financial Abuse, around 50 percent of estate disputes involve disagreements between stepmothers and stepchildren.

"Blended families don't get any easier after the death of one of the parents who did the blending," said one family and relationship expert. "Family feuds over inheritances are legendary. When they happen in blended families, old drama gains new fuel for the fire."

There are ways to prevent estate disputes. Greater transparency between the parents and the children and stepchildren can help a lot, and that often begins with a solid estate plan.

An estate plan should be as specific as possible about who will receive what bequest and when. An advantageous time to create one is before you remarry, because you will want to specify what will be changing as a result of the marriage. Alternatively, you could develop a prenuptial agreement, which can limit what assets are passed to a new spouse in favor of existing children.

Whether you choose an estate plan or a prenup, sharing it with the children and stepchildren can help prevent disputes because it reduces the potential for surprise. It can also give loved ones a sense of when the decisions were made -- and that the person deciding wasn't being coerced, defrauded or unfairly influenced.

Your estate plan should be reviewed at least every 10 years -- every five years if you're over 60 -- and whenever there are changes in your life that could affect it. Routinely reviewing the plan and making appropriate changes can ensure your plan doesn't suffer from incomplete or inaccurate information.

You can protect your loved ones from a great deal of disappointment and costly disputes by creating and maintaining a comprehensive estate plan. A lawyer can help you achieve your specific estate planning goals.

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