The Moneyist: ‘My stepmother is an insecure, manipulative woman.’ Am I obliged to take care of her after my father dies?

The Moneyist: ‘My stepmother is an insecure, manipulative woman.’ Am I obliged to take care of her after my father dies?

1 Jan    Finance News

Dear Moneyist,

Several years after my mother’s death, my father remarried. My stepmother is an insecure, manipulative woman. Because my father seems happy to be with her, I keep those feelings to myself, other than confiding in my partner. My stepmother is eight years younger than my father, and we expect that she will outlive him. I am prepared to take care of my father. After he dies, however, I want nothing to do with my stepmother. She is on her own.

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My stepmother has no children. I don’t know if she has any friends. My father has named her his beneficiary to his retirement, so it’s not as if she will be left destitute. I am or, at least, feel financially secure. I carry no debt. I made my last mortgage payments two years ago and I pay my credit cards off every month. Both my children’s 529 plans have six-figure sums and, in addition to my 401(k), I contribute to my pension and can retire in seven years. I also have mutual funds.

And so to my question: do I owe my stepmother any filial responsibility should she deplete the retirement funds and require Medicaid, assuming she outlives my father? She has no hand in raising me and has no interaction with my teenagers. Are my assets at risk of being garnished by the state should she come after me to support her in the event she winds up destitute? If so, is there anything I can do now so that I am not obligated to care for her?


Dear Mandy,

As I’m answering your question on the day after Christmas, let me ask you a question first: Why do you dislike your stepmother? Sometimes, if we take a dislike to someone, rather than examine our own role in the relationship, we create our own narrative around their actions and motivations and place in the world. I don’t fully buy descriptors like “manipulative” and “insecure.”

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If she loves your father, let’s assume that she did her best to win his affections, and vice-versa. The rest is just conjecture. If she has said or done anything to make you unhappy, ask yourself what you have done (or haven’t done) that could have made her life easier or more difficult. Understanding a person’s actions is tantamount to forgiving them. I am sure she’s not perfect, either.

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That’s the end of my Yuletide speech. Onto your question. Approximately 30 U.S. states have filial responsibility laws, which can be traced back to colonial times and aim to impose a duty on adult children to support their impoverished parents. Those states include both Ohio and Kentucky. These laws are rarely enforced. There have been some attempts in Pennsylvania and North Dakota.

According to the Fenelli Law Firm in Mission Viejo, Calif., with “government programs such as Medicaid, federal law has prohibited states from considering the financial responsibility of any person other than a spouse in determining whether an applicant is eligible.” However, it adds, “Many states may consider more aggressive enforcement of their filial responsibility laws.”

Approximately 30 U.S. states have filial responsibility laws, which can be traced back to colonial times and aim to impose a duty on adult children to support their impoverished parents.

“Twenty-one states allow lawsuits to recover financial support,” it adds. “Parties that are allowed to bring such a lawsuit vary state by state. In some states, only the parents themselves can file a claim. In other states, the county, state public agencies or the parent’s creditors can file the lawsuit. In 12 states, criminal penalties may be imposed upon the adult children who fail to support their parents.”

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In some states, the Fenelli Law Firm adds, “Children are excused from their filial responsibility if they don’t have enough income to help out, or if they were abandoned as children by the parent. However, the abandonment defense can be difficult to prove, especially if the parent had a good reason to abandon the child, like serious financial difficulties.” Bad behavior by parents can be a factor.

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As a stepchild, I don’t see you being on the hook to help your stepmother. Her legal arrangement in the eyes of the state is to your father, not his children. You are not a blood relative. Similarly, if she inherited all of your father’s estate in his will and she died without a will, it’s unlikely that you would inherit any of that. As you are not a biological relative, you are not her legal heir.

This column deals with financial, legal and relationship issues, plus ethics and etiquette. What you decide to do is entirely up to you. If you were to help her out, you would have to put your own personal feelings about her aside. My guess is the more you helped her, the less you would dislike her and the more you would see her as just another person trying to make their way in the world.

I have more questions for you to think about. Consider these suggestions rather than prescriptions. What example would you like to set your children — walk away after your father dies or remain connected in case she needs social, emotional or financial support? How would you feel if the roles were reversed — if she were the stepdaughter, gazing at you from afar with a gimlet eye?

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And — perhaps this is the most important question to consider — what would your beloved father want you to do?

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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