The Moneyist: My father died from a heart attack 2 weeks after his wedding — how much should I give my stepmother from his $500K estate?

The Moneyist: My father died from a heart attack 2 weeks after his wedding — how much should I give my stepmother from his $500K estate?

15 Dec    Finance News

Dear Moneyist,

My father married a woman this summer and they were together for a year and a half before that. She made him happy and I really appreciate that. My father had a heart attack two weeks after the wedding and ultimately passed away.

Also see: Can I leave my stepchildren nothing if my husband dies?

I am dealing with his estate and he left a sizable amount of money to me ($500,000). His wife was not yet in the will. I want to do right by my father, but I do not know what would be a reasonable amount to give her.

I do not want her left homeless because she probably does not have much savings, and my dad would not have wanted that. I also do not want to give her too much because a lot of the money comes from my mother’s pension. What is a reasonable percentage?

Grieving son

Dear Son,

First of all, what a pleasure to read a letter that wants to give someone a slice of an inheritance rather than take it away. It comes just in time for the holidays. I commend you for wanting to do right by your father’s widow and your father’s wishes.

I recently received a letter from a woman who married a man and decided that she deserved more than a life tenancy in her husband’s home and 10% of his $2 million estate. Both letters have the same takeaway: sign prenups/wills before the wedding.

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Talk to your father’s widow. Ask her how she feels, what she needs and get a sense of her financial situation. If she trusts that you are there to make sure that she doesn’t end up on the street, she may be willing to open her books in the company of a financial adviser.

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It may be that she can afford to pay the upkeep on the house. If you wanted/needed to sell your family home, perhaps you could buy a smaller investment property and give her the right to live there for the remainder of her life. An estate attorney can help.

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It’s hard to pick a percentage out of thin air, but you could look at the intestate succession laws in your state. Under such laws, a spouse would typically inherit between 25% and 50% of the estate. Of course, your father wasn’t married for long.

Given the circumstances, I would suggest 25% ($125,000) or less. Of course, this all depends on her financial circumstances, and what you do with the house. It should also be a number that you are comfortable with: It is your inheritance, after all.

Also see: My stepmother told me she wasn’t required to file my father’s will — then she left his house and investments to her kids

You don’t have to make any decisions under pressure and it’s best not to make any major financial decisions when you are grieving. After you decide, invite her to join your family over the holidays. That’s the one gift you can give her every year that may be more difficult to put a price on.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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