Why do so many widows end up at odds with their stepchildren? Experts say that around 50% of estates that end up in litigation involve a dispute between a stepmother and her deceased spouse's natural children. The arguments can range from relatively minor (but very emotional) disagreements over the personal items of the deceased husband/father to major contests over the terms of the will or a trust.
Why do stepmothers end up in so many estate disputes?
There are several reasons behind all the trouble. Women tend to outlive men, which means there are generally more widowed stepmothers out there than widowed stepfathers in the first place. In fact, widows outnumber widowers by more than 8 million, which accounts for the disparity between genders.
The rest is likely a combination of unfortunate family dynamics. If the couple's relationship started as an affair, then the stepmother is the "other woman." The children may harbor resentment toward her over their father's and mother's failed marriage. Even if the children's mother is deceased and the stepmother came along later, the children may feel like she doesn't respect their mother's memory. At best, they may feel simply unattached to her, since she wasn't a significant force in their lives. If their father married her very late in life, the children may view her as a gold digger -- especially if their father had dementia or there was a serious age gap between the couple. Finally, the stepchildren may be afraid that their family's wealth and heirloom items will go to the stepmother's natural children instead of to them.
One thing is certain: the death of the husband/father is bound to escalate any tensions that existed while he was still alive. It may also reveal hidden resentments that had been kept in check.
Can you avoid a dispute over your estate?
It may not be possible to entirely prevent disputes over an estate, but you can take steps to minimize them.
While you are alive, make use of tax laws that allow you to give your children a yearly cash gift. Disburse some of your wealth while you are still alive. That will not only endear you to your heirs, but it will also allow you to see the money put to good use in your lifetime.
Review your will when you re-marry and update it. Make it clear that you have considered your spouse, any stepchildren, and your own children in the current will. That way, no one can claim that they were accidentally forgotten.
Ask your attorney to detail exactly what your spouse would receive under state laws if you died without a will. Make sure that what you leave your spouse is equal to or greater than that amount.
Include a "non-dispute" clause. That's a paragraph stating that if an heir disputes the will and loses, he or she forfeits whatever it is that would have been received. For example, if you left your grandson $25,000 and he contests the will to get more, he forfeits the $25,000 if he loses.
Make sure that your will specifies who is to handle your burial/cremation, what you would prefer, and who gets custody of the remains. You can also include a codicil that specifically distributes or dictates the distribution of your personal items.
Finally, consider having an attorney serve as the executor of your estate. Estate or probate lawyers are less likely to be caught up in the pressure that could get to a family member or friend -- which will help see that your assets are distributed as you ordered. For more information, contact a probate lawyer, such as David R Webb Attorney.Share