Stepmothers and Estate Litigation

Blended families are prone to estate and trust litigation, and stepmothers often play a central role in a dispute. Often, disagreements arise between the stepmother and the genetic children of the deceased over beneficiary rights. If you or a family member recently lost a loved one and is now dealing with a complicated relationship among surviving beneficiaries, contact a California estate and trust attorney to help. The experienced lawyers at Hackard Law can help you navigate the intricacies of beneficiary rights and distribution. Contact us today to understand your rights and discuss the circumstances of your case.

Dynamics of Blended Families

Relational dynamics between stepmothers and stepchildren can be complicated, to say the least. Estate fights are not only ignited from a disproportionate sharing of estates. A few common patterns that give rise to disputes are the following:

  1. Time - Divisions exist between the biological parent's obligation to provide for his children and his commitment to a spouse. Over time this dichotomy of interests can lead to tension, resentment, and other relational issues coming to a head over the estate distribution of the deceased.
  2. Short-term marriages - A marriage cut short by the decedent's death leave fertile ground for estate litigation. Wills, estate plans, transfers of property and trusts drawn or beneficiaries changed during the decedent's last days are all issues that could arise.
  3. Long-term marriages - Litigation generally only arises over drastic estate plan changes made at the last minute or on the decedent's deathbed. Otherwise, the welfare of the biological children and the spouse are often balanced by estate plans in place over the course of the marriage.
  4. Age gap - Age gaps of a younger stepmother and her more senior spouse often create tension with the biological children of the deceased.
  5. Nature of marriage relationship - Biological children of the deceased often harbor resentment when a relationship between their stepmother and father arose from an affair or other complicated situation.
  6. Other children - Additionally, biological children of the stepmother blended into the family unit can be a cause for discord when those children become more favored and experience certain benefits that the others do not.
  7. Burial issues - Location of burial can often cause controversy, especially when the deceased was a widower from a previous marriage. Control over the burial or cremation creates difficulties that give rise to understandably emotional conflict.

Reasons for conflict in stepmother relationships can range from simple distaste to complex relational and financial disputes. Even when positive relationships develop over time, challenges following the decedent's death may still arise.

Estate Battles

Many challenges arise with a dispute between a stepmother and the children of the deceased. The interests and motives of the parties collide and lead to one or more of the following issues:

  • Will Contests
  • Trust contests
  • Life estate challenges
  • Probate objections
  • Deed revocations
  • Joint tenancy quarrels

These issues go before California's probate and civil divisions of the Superior Courts. The time and attention to detail these topics require are one of many reasons to contact a California estate and trust attorney skilled in this area of the law. The emotional, physical, and financial tolls that disputes of this nature take on families can cause tremendous stress and ongoing issues if left unattended.

Undue Influence

One of the most common claims in estate disputes involving stepmothers is the cognitive decline of the decedent. Conditions like dementia or Alzheimer's can have grave effects on the ability to make financial and estate change decisions. New Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) rules enable financial and investment advisors to better protect their elderly clients who may be entering cognitive decline.

In general, dementia creates situations of memory loss, impaired judgment, language issues, and even personality changes. Medical professionals use a Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) to evaluate the stages of the disease. Estate litigations involving undue influence tend to occur later in the ratings of Stage 4 or Stage 5. Medical records, witnesses of decedent's conduct, cognitive understanding, etc. are all considered in estate litigation of this nature.

  • CDR Stage 4: Individual becomes more and more disoriented at this stage, getting lost easily or struggling to keep family members straight. Short-term memory loss increases leading to greater confusion and frustration.
  • CDR Stage 5: The most severe and final phase of dementia leaves individual incapable of caring for oneself. Extreme memory loss with little to no understanding of time or orientation.

Undue influence arises when a person takes advantage of this cognitive decline in their spouse and plays on the vulnerabilities that coincide with the disease. Encouraging the change of estate plans or other shifts in control of family finances are causes for concern that rightfully give way to disputes among stepmothers and the biological children of the decedent. Some of the various changes encouraged by undue influence could be:

  • Signing Deeds
  • Powers of Attorney
  • Bank Deposits
  • Moving other Assets

Any caretaker or family member could encourage these property transfers in an undue influence situation. The stepmother's role in estate disputes is often a result of these accusations by the biological children of the decedent.

Contact an Experienced California Trust & Estate Attorney to Discuss Your Case

Family difficulties during a time when a loved one is experiencing a cognitive decline or recently passed away are stressful. About half of all cases handled at Hackard Law involve some type of dispute between the stepmother and the genetic children of the deceased. The numerous legal and financial issues arising from a decedent's estate can be complex and often require the assistance of a skilled attorney in the area of trusts and estates. Elders need to be safe from exploitation, and the rights of beneficiaries must be respected.

To better understand your rights and make sure that your interests are protected, contact the experienced California attorneys at Hackard Law. We offer free consultations in which we will look at the facts of your case and advise you as to your legal options. We serve clients from everywhere in California. To schedule an appointment with one of our lawyers, call our office today at (916) 313-3030 from Santa Clara or (213) 357-5200 from Los Angeles, or contact us online.