Trust & Estate Meltdowns | Stepchildren and Stepmothers
Estate planning meltdowns touch many families. – small and large. Celebrity estate fights spotlight the mishaps of the rich and famous. But, far more common misfires hit the local probate court docket with little fanfare.
Little fanfare does not mean little pain. Family members fighting to reverse unexpected transfers of a deceased family member’s assets feel deep wounds. These wounds may flow from betrayal, duplicity, even treachery.
These are strong words. Do case facts mirror such words? Let’s look at one common scenario and see.
Second-family disputes occupy their share of court dockets. We know that divorce is an American constant. Some 50% of marriages end in divorce. And, many divorced men and women remarry.
Remarriage brings its own challenges. Stepchildren being one of them. Estate planning for second families another. Research tells us that only 20% of adult stepchildren feel close to their stepmoms.
So, it’s little surprise when we see inheritance battles between stepchildren and their stepmom. These may be skirmishes that are rapidly resolved. They may also be all-out wars.
Battles over funerals, burials and ashes are commonplace. Only a small percentage of estate plans address these types of issues. A biological child might well want their parent buried in a family plot, or ashes distributed to the decedent’s children. These desires might conflict with the stepparent’s actions.
Family mementos are other points of contention. Biological children see little purpose in first-family mementos going to a stepparent or, even worse, to a stepparent’s own biological children. It grates to have someone unrelated people dispose of a father’s personal assets with no regard to his children. It might grate, but it is common.
Some acts might be thoughtless or negligent. Still, intentional acts can be sinister. We regularly litigate last-minute insurance policy changes removing children as beneficiaries, only to be replaced by a stepmother. The same circumstances are common to houses, IRAs, 401(k)s, bank accounts and securities.
All of this is ultimately part of the human condition. The strains that dissolved a first marriage might well spread to the second. Children, feeling abandoned by a divorce, may have unhealed wounds that are reopened by their treatment at their father’s death. Given the frequency of trust and estate litigation in this arena, it makes sense for second marriage spouses to pay more than passing attention to their estate plan.
How are biological children to be treated? Are they to be protected after the first spousal death? Is the surviving spouse free to cut them out and benefit her own children? If the biological children are the beneficiaries of a trust, is their stepparent a wise choice to be the trustee? Will this engender unnecessary conflict?
This is particularly so when the survivor’s own children are exerting influence over the decedent’s biological children. Like in anything, experience counts.
We at Hackard Law have a great deal of experience in addressing the rights of stepchildren to their father’s decedent’s estate. These rights vary. They may rest upon elder financial abuse, undue influence or even fraud. On the other hand, there may be little basis for challenge.
Time counts. Short challenge periods are part of the litigation landscape.
Hackard Law takes significant estate and trust cases where we think that we can make a substantial difference and there is a wrongdoer who can be made financially accountable for their wrongdoing.
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