Jennifer R. Luitjens, Esq.
Jarrett Law Office, PLC, South Burlington, VT
Everyone knows the ending to Cinderella’s fairy tale – she gets the prince and the castle. But do we remember how it all started? Why Cinderella needed a fairy tale ending? Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
Cinderella lived in a castle of her own, with her father. Her mother died when she was a young girl, and her father decided to re-marry in part so that there would be a female presence. When Cinderella’s father died from an illness, it was only then that her step-mother’s “evil” nature emerged. At that point, the step-mother openly favored her own daughters and made Cinderella a servant in her own home.
Of course, the story does not depict the legal details describing how Cinderella came to be in these circumstances. We can, however, make a few inferences. One presumption is that when her father re-married, he did what many couples do: he titled all his assets jointly with his new wife or named her as primary death beneficiary. Perhaps he even had a discussion or verbal agreement with his bride that each would care for the children of the prior marriages as if they were his or her own. It is possible that each spouse even signed a Will leaving all marital assets to each other, and then, after both of their deaths, equally to the three daughters. What Cinderella’s father did not do adequately, according to the story, is protect her from his premature death and the subsequent “change of heart” experienced by his surviving wife, a phenomenon we will now categorize as Cinderella syndrome.
While many surviving spouses will not develop evil personas and purposely exclude the step-children, it is important to realize that Cinderella syndrome can occur by chance. If we can imagine for a moment that Cinderella’s step-mother did not mistreat her, but instead became ill and died, Cinderella may still have been destitute. If her step-mother died without a Will (or with a Will that only mentioned her own daughters), Cinderella’s step-sisters would be the only legal heirs to their mother’s estate…which came from their mother’s husband…who was the biological father of Cinderella.
We can certainly learn many lessons from this tale, as multiple marriages and blended families are not uncommon in our society. We can avoid or minimize the potential of Cinderella syndrome through various planning tools.
Some notable examples include living trusts and life insurance. If funded properly, living trusts can divert certain assets to the children in question and can include directions regarding distribution of those assets. A parent can purchase additional life insurance, naming his or her children (or a trust for their benefit) as beneficiary, thereby ensuring a certain portion of funds are available to the children. To protect funds earmarked for college, a parent could also consider a §529 College Savings Plan. The proper strategies for a particular family will depend upon the size and type of assets involved, the age of the children, and other factors. To ensure a Cinderella ending for your children, it’s important to have a plan that extends beyond the prince and the castle. After all, princes and castles are in short supply in our times.
Jennifer R. Luitjens is Certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation, a non-profit organization accredited by the ABA. She lives in Jericho and practices in South Burlington with the Jarrett Law Office. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute comprehensive or specific legal advice. The author stresses the need to engage appropriate legal and financial professionals when devising your individual estate plan.