Probate is the process by which the courts establish the validity of a will in order to administer and distribute the assets of a deceased person. It is also the process by which the court handles asset distribution and settling the estate if the deceased person did not leave a will.
This process can be even more complex in a stepfamily, given the additional family members and their claims to a deceased family member's assets. In fact, probate fights may be more frequent in stepfamilies due to a variety of factors.
The 'evil stepmother' stereotype
There is a stereotype that views stepmothers as especially problematic in probate disputes. However, the stereotype is not entirely without merit. It is not necessarily that the stepmother is "evil" as the stereotype may hold but rather that disputes between stepmothers are more frequent due to several different factors.
One of these is that life expectancies are longer for women than men; therefore, stepmothers become widows more often than stepfathers become widowers. In addition, stepchildren are not generally as close with their stepmothers as they are with their biological mothers. In some cases, stepmothers may favor their own children in a probate dispute as opposed to the deceased father's biological children. So, although probate fights may not necessarily be more frequent in stepfamilies, these are a few specific factors that can lead to increased conflict.
Resolving probate disputes
Facing probate is a time of confusion and heightened emotions as the family works through grief. Probate litigation can be a long and costly process, so it is important to try to minimize conflict as much as possible. The best way to avoid probate disputes is through advance planning with legal instruments such as wills and trusts, which make up part of a comprehensive estate plan. In the absence of an estate plan, a way to minimize conflict is through the assistance of a professional who can help guide family members through the process and provide information for making informed decisions.