Call it an "Aha! Moment." I am reading the latest summary sheet of our law firm's disputed probate, estate and trust cases and come across an insight and observation that should have been obvious -but it wasn't. About 50% of our active disputed estate cases involve litigated differences between stepmothers and their stepchildren.
Providing an objective assessment for the frequency of stepmother-step-children probate and trust battles is elusive - but to ignore it is to live in another world. For us the anecdotal evidence is in. Case by case - Will Contests, Trust Contests, Life Estate challenges, Probate Objections, Deed Revocations or Joint Tenancy quarrels -- the interests and paths of stepmothers and stepchildren often collide. In California, these collisions of interests play themselves out in the probate and civil divisions of our state's Superior Courts.
Our representation of stepmothers or stepchildren in probate disputes wasn't formed by our own conscious design or plan. I suppose that such disputes are ancient in origin and grounded in the personal motives of each to resist emotional, physical and financial encroachment by the other. To be fair, stepfathers are not immune to estate and probate disputes. We just find that the frequency of stepfather disputes is a fraction of stepmother disputes. There are some likely reasons for this disparity.
Why Do Stepmothers Get a Bad Rap?
Real-life stepmothers may get unfair treatment in fairy tales, but there is a family dynamic that leads to estate disputes between stepmothers and stepchildren. Image: Walt Disney Company
To explain the stepmother phenomenon in estate disputes, let's begin by noting there is a life expectancy gap in the United States between men and women. A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84. A woman turning the same age today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.
Far more women than men meet the definition of "Widowhood" - the status of a spouse legally married to someone who subsequently died. There are around 14 million widowed singles in the United States. Widowed females far outnumber widowed males - 11.2 million females to 2.9 million males. To the extent that these widowed females and males have stepchildren it is evident that the number of surviving stepmothers heavily outweighs the number of surviving stepfathers.
Anyone living in the real world wouldn't be surprised by research showing that only about 20% of adult stepchildren feel close to their stepmoms. Moreover, studies show abundant evidence that stepmothers and their stepchildren do not grow closer over time.
Whether the reasons for estrangement are simple or complex, stepmothers' relationships with their stepchildren are often problematic. Even when stepmothers and stepchildren try to develop a positive relationship a successful outcome may prove elusive. It may not be politically correct to write about the frequency of estate fights caused by disputes with stepmothers. That said, by the time a vigorous estate battle ensues, all litigants' pretensions of political correctness are set aside.
We don't need a comprehensive academic study to understand that a sizable number of estate fights involve stepmothers - specifically stepmothers, rightly or wrongly accused of wrongdoing. Even our culture's literature abounds with stepmother stereotypes depicting pettiness, jealousy and greed aplenty. After all, Cinderella is controlled and beset by a wicked stepmother. Snow White is hated for her beauty and endures suffering brought by a jealous evil stepmother. Never forget Hansel and Gretel, who battled for life against their stepmother's heartless plan to abandon them to their fate in the wilderness.
The reality of trust and estate fights between stepchildren and their stepmothers may seem chaotic, but the facts giving rise to the disputes fit some likely patterns.
The first pattern - time - is an important element to understand. It is an illusion to maintain that estate fights are ignited only from disproportionate sharing of estates.
Estate disputes generally grow from smoldering embers - not from sparks that ignite suddenly. Stepmother family divisions can smolder for years. Whatever the source, tensions often exist between members of a first and second family. Even when later marriages are childless, divisions will exist between a father's obligations to his children and his obligations to his later spouse.
Let's take a look at some of the common - but not exclusive - elements of estate litigation involving disputes between stepmothers and one or more of their stepchildren.
Whatever attracted Tony Curtis to his last wife Jill, 42 years his junior, his death brought on a nasty estate fight between stepmother and stepchildren.
Short-term marriages present a perfect, brief incubation period for brewing a hot estate dispute. While the decedent's marriage may have been cut short by his death, his long-term estate plan may have been cut short by undue influence in the period before his passing. Wills, estate plans, transfers of property and trusts hastily drawn with beneficiaries hastily changed during a husband's last days practically guarantees estate litigation. Claims of undue influence are just about inevitable when a stepmother exerts influence over her dying husband to change all of his estate plans and transfer all of his property to her. Such changes particularly incense those family members who are not only excluded from the Will, but who were often cut off from visitation during their father's final months or days.
Although long-term marriages don't necessarily provide a safe harbor against an estate challenge, such unions are more likely to have produced estate plans that balanced the welfare of a father's children with the welfare of his later spouse. Estate plans in such marriages are usually consistent, and they're only challenged when the consistency is interrupted by drastic estate plan changes made on the deathbed or during a final illness.
Stepmothers & Estate Law: A Typical Case
The late Robin Williams' family was rocked by an estate dispute between his children and stepmother Susan. Photo: Daily Telegraph
As the stepmother figure from fairytales demonstrates, our culture is in large part based on storytelling. As lawyers, we're not allowed to share our clients' confidences that would otherwise make for fantastic stories. But we can - with some discretion - draw in broad-brush strokes the makings of a classic stepmother estate fight.
We'll start our sketch, of course, with the stepmother. This is not to impugn stepmothers in general, nor is it to impugn those stepmothers who've found themselves in estate litigation. It is to help identify the factors that are obvious. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why a significant percentage of estate fights involve stepmothers.
Stepmothers involved in estate litigation are often several years the junior of a successful man (professional, entrepreneur, educator, investor, etc. - we'll call him "Mr. Successful"). Mr. Successful has at least one child from a prior marriage. His child has been a part of his life - at times intermittently, leading to periods of estrangement the child attributes to the stepmother.
Mr. Successful's estate has grown over the years. He's made gifts to his children, and when applicable, to his second wife's children by a prior marriage.
Unfortunately, there have been tensions in the family. One child (of the father or stepmother) has a substance abuse problem. The problem is either obvious (the child is incarcerated), not so obvious (the child doesn't work and no one knows why), or ignored (the child has cultivated a one of a kind marijuana plantation in the neighbor's back yard).
There may be a most favored child. Favored children may be the offspring of the father or the stepmother. Favored children of the stepmother can be particularly problematic. Continual behind-the-scenes efforts by a stepmother to advance the interests of her child over those of her husband's birth child won't escape the notice of other family members. Financial favors can include loans, free rent, cars and vacations. Family members will discover these favors after Mr. Successful's death - not through the open disclosure by a stepmother, but more likely through records uncovered by stepchildren.
Common stepmother disputes will break out at a father's death. Many times have we seen a dispute over where the deceased's body will end up. Such disputes strike at the heart and soul of family relationships. Where the father was first widowed and then remarried, issues like burial with his first wife will arise. Some stepmothers accede to this without controversy, while others ignore the children's requests and control the burial or cremation of the decedent. Terrible things can occur here - among them the refusal to release "cremains" to children, or the refusal to provide a headstone or let anyone else provide a headstone for the decedent. A times stepmothers hide all information on the burial, so that family members have no idea where the remains of their loved one are located. Let's emphasize that such disputes are neither uncommon nor easily resolved.
Stepmother estate fights often feature revelations of secrets, and even allegations of undue influence and elder financial abuse.
Hide-and-Seek may have been a fun game during our childhood, but it's not so fun when we we're grown-ups. Hide-and-Seek in the stepmother-stepchildren relationship often begins with a married father's initial affair with a woman destined to later be his wife - more importantly, his children's stepmother. The natural strains between a stepmother and her stepchildren are exacerbated by the stepchildren's feelings of family betrayal. The stepmother is an easy focus on the source of betrayal.
The Dementia Gambit
Elders with dementia are vulnerable to undue influence, and these claims are quite common in estate disputes involving stepmothers.
Dementia is a general term that embraces a wide array of symptoms - memory loss, impaired judgment, language, and personality changes coupled with reduced powers of reasoning. Dementia is chronic and is caused by brain disease or injury. Family members often shy away from the dementia diagnosis while their loved one is living. Dementia is a medical diagnosis rife with heavy emotional consequences, which is why recognition of the disease often gets delayed.
Professionals use Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) to evaluate the progression of symptoms in patients with dementia. My experience in estate litigation leads me to conclude that most undue influence activities later challenged in court occur when the elder is at Stage 4 or 5 on the CDR scale. In estate litigation, we analyze medical records and conduct witness interviews to make initial - but not final - conclusions as to where and when the decedent fit onto the CDR scale.
CDR Stage 4 is when the elder is becoming more disoriented as to time and space. The elder gets lost easily and struggles with time relationships. Short-term memory is substantially impaired. It is at this stage that the elder might not know the month or year in which he is being interviewed. Other confusion may exist as to his relationships - he may think that his sister is his daughter or spouse his sister. Disorientation is clear.
CDR Stage 5 is the final and most severe phase of dementia. The elder cannot function at all without assistance. The elder has extreme memory loss. There is little or no understanding of orientation in time or geography. The elder finds it nearly impossible to be a social part of regular activities. Help is needed for all personal needs. This is a dangerous time. Household items like stoves, garbage disposals, and hot water can be accidents waiting to happen.
Bad actors can try to exploit the vulnerabilities of an elder with dementia, a scheme we call the "dementia gambit." A gambit is an action carrying a degree of risk that is calculated to gain an advantage. Dementia gambits - loosely put - are efforts to unduly influence the elder to engage in an act which might on its face appear to be brazen, but which is meant to take control of a family fortune. Such gambits are common in heated stepmother-stepchildren disputes.
The property-transfer gambit is an effort to have the individual with dementia sign deeds, powers of attorney, bank deposits or other assets over to a person exercising undue influence. It would be unfair to assign such conduct only to stepmothers. After all, we have seen similar behavior within the scope of all family members, as well as neighbors, caretakers and near-strangers. But since we've been talking about stepmothers, we will continue analyzing their role in estate disputes.
The Telltale Funeral
Baseball legend Ernie Banks' burial was contested between his estranged wife, his sons, and his agent. Photo: Bleachernation.com
It is not because of greed that financial issues come to the fore at the death of a loved one. Final arrangements must be made. Legal concerns over accounts and financial commitments are unfortunately a part of the mix during a time of grief. It is often at this moment that signs of wrongdoing begin to show.
Sometimes hints of wrongdoing are subtle. Other times the hints are as obvious as the proverbial skunk at the garden party. Whether obvious or otherwise, information that should be shared is not. Questions as to the existence or nonexistence of estate planning documents are shunted aside. Oftentimes personal property disappears or is signed over into the wrong hands. Precious family heirlooms might be found in the garbage at the decedent's house - sometimes as early as the date of death. It's as though vultures swoop down on the grief of the innocent.
The Simple Truth
The simple truth is that estates of some fathers leaving a widowed stepmother and stepchildren will become battlegrounds. However small the percentage of such affected estates amidst all cases, battleground estates can shift to hard-fought litigation that drains family fortunes and inflames emotions.
If you remember one thing, cooler heads willing to resolve matters early will often save estate money and reduce the emotional and financial injury to all members of the decedent's family. Thankfully there are still some good attorneys and reasonable clients who can achieve this goal. Meanwhile, those cases that escape early resolution often quickly escalate to probate, estate, trust and property disputes that epitomize the cultural stereotypes surrounding classic battles between stepmothers and their stepchildren.