Kentucky Laws on an Inheritance by Stepchildren

By Heather Frances J.D.
Stepchildren are not legally tied to stepparents.

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Though the bond between a parent and stepchild can be stronger than the bond between children their biological parents, the law does not always recognize that closeness. In Kentucky, stepchildren are treated differently than adopted or biological children and may not be able to inherit in the same way. However, stepchildren can inherit when they are directly named as beneficiaries.

Legal Relationships

Dying with a will is legally referred to as dying "intestate." When a person dies without a valid will in Kentucky, his estate passes to his legal heirs under the terms of Kentucky’s intestate succession laws. Depending on the decedent’s family situation, legal heirs could include a surviving spouse, parents, children or other close relatives. However, there must be a legal bond between the heir and the decedent -- not just an emotional one. Under Kentucky law, a stepchild and stepparent bond, by itself, is not a legal bond and, thus, the stepchild cannot inherit under Kentucky’s intestate succession procedures. If the stepparent legally adopted the stepchild, however, the stepchild is considered the legal child of the stepparent and can inherit under intestate succession.

Intestate Succession

When an intestate decedent leaves a surviving spouse, Kentucky law gives her rights to $15,000 plus half of the personal property and real estate he owned when he died along with certain rights to property he transferred without her consent while he was alive. Kentucky law does not allow a surviving spouse to inherit the entire estate unless the decedent left no parents, siblings or descendants, including descendants of his siblings. Instead, Kentucky gives the decedent’s legal children everything in the estate that the surviving spouse does not inherit. A stepchild who was legally adopted by the decedent has the same rights as any other legal children, including the right to an equal share of whatever the decedent’s surviving spouse did not inherit.

Inheritance by Will

Kentucky law does not limit a person’s ability to leave his property to a stepchild in his will. Since the law does not require a beneficiary under a will to be legally related to the decedent, a stepparent is free to leave a portion of his estate to his stepchild. For example, a stepparent who wants to split half of his estate equally between his biological child and stepchild could leave 25 percent to each. However, if a stepparent wants to include his stepchild, he must name the child in his will or be sure to specifically refer to "stepchildren," instead of just saying “children.” This helps the courts and his family understand whether he meant to include his stepchild in his will.

Non-Probate Transfers

Some property transfers by the terms of a contract or other non-probate method rather than under the terms of a will or by intestate succession. For example, life insurance and retirement plans typically transfer to a named beneficiary without going through a court-administered estate settlement, or probate, process. Stepparents are free to name their stepchildren as beneficiaries of such life insurance policies, whether or not the stepchild was ever legally adopted. Similarly, a stepparent can create a payable-on-death bank account and name his stepchild as the beneficiary of that account. Upon the stepparent’s death, the stepchild inherits all the money in the account.

About the Author

Heather Frances has been writing professionally since 2005. Her work has been published in law reviews, local newspapers and online. Frances holds a Bachelor of Arts in social studies education from the University of Wyoming and a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School.

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