The Moneyist: ‘She brought nothing of substance into the marriage except debt.’ My stepmother buried my father’s will — then left everything to her kids

The Moneyist: ‘She brought nothing of substance into the marriage except debt.’ My stepmother buried my father’s will — then left everything to her kids

5 Jan    Finance News

Dear Moneyist,

My father died suddenly in 2002. I am his only child. His third wife and he had been married for less than four years.

She brought nothing of substance into the marriage other than debts that he declined to pay off, which meant she had to continue working. He told me there was a will, but never told me where it was or the name of his lawyer.

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I told his wife about the will, and she acknowledged there was one. She said she did not have to probate the will because their assets were held jointly. As a result, she had all his money, both houses, three cars, and some investment property.

She and I had only a few contacts after his death, but when she died three years later, her adult children got everything. They gave me a box of my father’s old family photographs they found in storage.

Dealing with his death had a stronger impact on me than expected. As a result, I did not pursue the matter. I suspect I have waited too long to do anything, but I am interested if there is any significant possibility I might recover something from his estate.

Distraught daughter in Georgia

Dear Distraught,

You’re in a conundrum. Your stepmother’s reason for not entering your father’s will into probate, if one existed, gives me serious pause. Typically, there are certain joint assets that do not need to go through probate: property owned under joint tenancy, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, revocable living trusts and other payable-upon-death bank accounts for which your stepmother was named as beneficiary.

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If your father owned assets in his own name, and let’s assume that he did, your stepmother would have been required to enter it into probate. That’s the point of writing a will, after all. It’s also why it’s advisable to have your family attorney keep a copy of your will in addition to your executor. It’s not a good idea to leave your last will and testament lying around in your desk drawer. People won’t always follow your wishes.

If there is no will, state law takes over. It varies from state to state. Under Georgia law, the surviving spouse and any children are required to split the estate evenly, with your stepmother entitled to at least 33% of the estate. In this case, there may have been a will that left some of your father’s estate to you. It may or may not have been filed. Alas, we don’t know. There are a lot of “maybes” in this tale, and we may never know the truth.

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But as you write, your biggest road block is time. Even if a will was discovered now, it would be too late. I’m sorry you were in no condition to challenge your stepmother when your father passed away. In Georgia, one must contest a will within four years of the proceedings. Your situation is messy and so much time has lapsed. Consult an attorney for closure, if it helps, but I suspect he/she will tell you what I just did: It’s too late to fight this (possible) lost inheritance.

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It’s been 17 years since your father passed away. Forgive me for suggesting that the time has come to put this episode to rest, once and for all. Perhaps find another way to honor him and to celebrate his life. I’m sure he would want you to be free of any regret or pain over the circumstances surrounding his death and inheritance. That could be his gift to you now and your gift to yourself. Ultimately, your father would want you to be happy.

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