By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
My mother was married to our stepfather for 20 years. She died in 2003. We’ve always had a great relationship with my stepfather and it continued until his passing a few months ago. The house that they lived in was bought with the proceeds from two homes they sold when they first married.
My stepfather lived in the house they shared until he passed just a few months ago. My mother had a will, which left each of us very little when she passed in 2003 (a small amount of cash, plus some jewelry). His kids recently listed the house for sale.
We’re wondering if we are entitled to any of the proceeds, considering our mother contributed to the purchase of the house? His son is the executor of the will and has made no mention of us inheriting anything once it sells. What are your thoughts on this?
This is a cautionary tale.
Your mother left so much up to chance by not hiring an estate planning lawyer and not leaving her half of her estate to her children. They could have agreed that half their home was to be put into a trust for you and your siblings, while allowing your stepfather to live out his days there, or vice-versa, depending on who died first. Then their home could have been split between their children.
Without a proper estate plan, you are relying on the kindness of your stepfather and/or stepbrothers and stepsisters. Perhaps your stepfather and mother assumed their kids would divide up their assets fairly and squarely, but what’s fair and legal, and what’s ethical and moral in this situation is subjective. What is clear: Your stepfather and mother left too much up to chance.
In California, if your mother died intestate (without a will) your stepfather would have inherited all of their community property (their home) and one-third of her separate property. The rest would have gone to you and your siblings. Of course, these are difficult conversations to have, but the time to claim two-thirds of that separate property was in 2003 when your mother passed away.
Over the years writing this column, I have heard from so many adult children whose father or mother has predeceased their stepparent. It was never pretty. Exhibit A: “My stepmother told me she wasn’t required to file my father’s will — then she left his house, cars and investments to her kids.” Exhibit B: “My stepfather wants to move his new wife into my late mother’s house.”
You could appeal to your stepsiblings’ goodwill, assuming you would have done the same in their place. This house belonged to your stepfather, and his children are his only legal heirs.
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