The evil stepmother is one of the most ancient of literary tropes – think “Cinderella” – and certainly many stepmothers don’t fit the stereotype. However, when it comes to estate battles, there’s no question many involve stepmothers vs. stepchildren.
One reason is simply life expectancy. Women tend to outlive men, and many stepmothers are considerably younger than their husbands. In fact, it’s not unusual for a second or subsequent wife to prove closer in years to her stepchildren than her spouse. When a woman is 20 years younger than her husband and only 10 to 15 years older than her stepchildren and loses her husband, it’s easy to see problems may arise with both parties interested in the deceased’s assets.
When a woman marries a man with grown children who do not live in the same geographic area, they may not see much of each other or become close. When the woman has children of her own, that may exacerbate the situation if the stepchildren think she is favoring or maneuvering them to obtain assets the biological children feel rightly belong to them.
Running the Gamut
The dead man’s body may barely be cold before disputes start. If plans haven’t been made, fights may erupt over burial, with the stepchildren wanting their dad interned with their mother if he was widowed, and the stepmother wanting her husband in a plot with her.
In a worst-case scenario, the stepmother may make all of the funeral arrangements without even informing the stepchildren of the time and location for services. However unpleasant such behavior, it’s nothing compared to a stepmother who may have exercised undue influence over a sick or mentally impaired husband to change his estate plans to benefit her and her children rather than his kids.
The most vulnerable husbands are those suffering from some form of dementia, as they are the ones most easily influenced by an unscrupulous wife. However, when a property is transferred, or power of attorney changed when a person has been diagnosed with later stage dementia, it is easier to challenge these doings in court. After all, a person writing a will is supposed to have a “sound mind.”
Avoiding Estate Battles
While it’s not possible to avoid all estate battles, the best way to do so is by ensuring the husband/father consult a skilled estate planning attorney. While couples often name each other as executors, if a man wants to limit the opportunities for his wife and children to do battle, he is wise to name an outside fiduciary as the personal representative.
It is also wise to explain how the estate plan will work to all involved parties, so there are no surprises on the marital or offspring side upon the man’s death. While some men may arrange their estate so that their wife inherits most of the assets, but they will pass to the children upon her death, that’s not the way to promote family harmony, even if the stepmother is close in age to her spouse. Consider making some gifts to the children at the time of death rather than making them wait until their stepmother dies.
Joint Rights of Survivorship
Of course, there are plenty of stepchildren who want to receive assets that legally belong to their stepmother. For example, say their father and stepmother bought a house together, and, as the majority of married couples do, title it with joint rights of survivorship.
That house isn’t part of the father’s estate, as it passes directly to the stepmother as the joint tenant. The couple may have other jointly owned assets, and whether they like it or not, the stepchildren do not have a right to them.
Often, estate battles erupt over family heirlooms which the stepchildren believe are theirs by right, especially if they originated with their mother’s family. These items may not be as valuable monetarily as bank accounts and mutual funds, for example, but they have intense sentimental meaning.
Perhaps the father promised some piece of furniture or other artifacts to a child, but never put this in writing. The best way to avoid an heirloom battle is for the father to state in his will that he is leaving X to this child and Y to that one, making it plain that these items will go to specific heirs and not to his spouse.
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