Let me tell you a story: After Mom died, Dad lived alone for awhile and remarried five years ago in Minnesota. The adult children from Dad's first marriage were not pleased with Isabella, Dad's second wife. She seemed terribly rude, and often appeared to "hide" Dad from them during the holidays and family get-togethers.
The Kids Think Their Stepmother Is Stealing
When Dad became ill, it seemed like Isabella did not keep them informed about Dad's medical condition. Tempers flared. When Dad later died, after the funeral Isabella told the kids that she was getting all of Dad's real estate, investments and bank accounts.
The kids believe that Isabella is stealing what they should be inheriting from their father.
Who is right?
As a probate attorney, I am asked this question many times every year.
The answer is: It depends.
Is There A Will?
If there is a Will, Dad may have left his assets to his wife or his children or some combination of the two. If Dad wrote the Will when he was not of sound mind or while under duress, the Will may not be valid. It is possible to challenge the Will under those circumstances.
If Dad and his second wife had their assets in joint tenancy, the spouse may get all of those assets. If there is no Will, the surviving spouse can get her statutory share which may be most or all of Dad's estate. If the homestead was titled in Dad's name, the spouse may be entitled to live in the house during her lifetime and then the home may belong to the kids.
Probate Issues Can Be Complicated
As you can see, probate questions can often become complicated. The issue can become even more complex when there are several marriages of the decedent especially if there are children from an earlier marriage.
Do you remember the fairy tale of Cinderella? She was the daughter of her father's first marriage and her stepmother was cruel to her. (Now I've often thought that if the stepmother had written the story, she might have said that Cinderella was a horrible child.)
Or how about in the Bible. Remember Joseph in the Old Testament? He had ten stepbrothers who tried to kill him.
The point is that stepchildren and stepparents have clashed probably since the beginning of time. Nowhere do these disputes become more pronounced than when there is a death in the family.
Consult With An Experienced Probate Attorney
When that happens, it is a good idea for the stepchildren to consult with a probate attorney. How the estate will be distributed will depend on the particular facts and circumstances of the parties. If the stepparent and stepchildren get good legal advice, this can often avoid unnecessary fights and illegal actions. However, if there is going to be a legal battle, it's good to know that at the outset.
The contents of this article are for information only and is not to be interpreted as legal advice. For personal legal advice you should consult with an attorney who is experienced in probate law or estate planning.