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The Moneyist: My stepfather died and left my mother, his wife of 21 years, nothing — now my step-siblings have taken control of his estate

Dear Moneyist,

My stepfather passed away last year. His will was very confusing and not updated after he married mother. His children (me, my stepbrother and stepsister) were left his businesses and his home. His life insurance was supposed to go to my mother, but the policy was terminated a few months prior due to a missed payment.

Since finding that out, my stepbrother and stepsister have decided that my mother should receive nothing even though he made it very clear he wanted her taken care of. It has been over a year and they still have not put the estate through probate. My stepfather has a very large estate. My mother is trustee.

Also see: My dad is moving into a condo with his ‘lady friend’ — will he have to deplete his savings to pay for her health care?

Because nothing has gone through probate, the children still went ahead and completely switched the company into their names and bought most of his personal property with company money. They know she does not have the money to fight them or bring it to court, but I can’t help but tell her not to give up.

I know in my heart my stepfather, who raised me, would not want her in this position. His death was unexpected and they were very happily married and together for 21 years. His children have not spoken to us in 6 months and only deal with the attorneys.

There is so much more to the story but just curious what info you may have for me.

Is there any point in fighting for the amount of the expected life insurance he intended her to receive?

A Stressed Daughter

Dear Daughter,

If the will stated that your mother should receive his life insurance and that policy was canceled at the time of his death, it’s highly unlikely that you would succeed in convincing a court that your mother should receive the equivalent of that sum, particularly as it would come out of your and your step-siblings’ inheritance.

Your father left behind a will that appears to preclude his wife of 21 years from receiving anything. Not making a new will to include his wife could in itself be regarded as a decision. It seems that he did not make any provisions for her outside of the life insurance policy, not even making her a tenant for life in the home they shared together.

This should not stop you from seeking the advice of an estate lawyer, of course, but I caution you to lower your expectations and think carefully before you engage in a long, emotionally draining and expensive legal fight. Given the size of your stepfather’s estate, the real winner may turn out to be the lawyer fighting your case.

Don’t miss: My stepmother hid my father’s will and bequeathed their home to her daughter — how can I claim my inheritance?

Given that your stepfather divided his estate three ways, you are an interested party. You don’t have to sit back and wait for your step-siblings to put this estate through probate. You can petition the court to appoint yourself or someone else as executor to get things moving. Using company funds to buy assets that should be in probate is highly irregular.

You have options: take back control of your stepfather’s will, seek legal advice, be realistic about what you hope to achieve and reassure your mother that — whatever happens — she will be taken care of. Given that your stepfather failed in his attempt to make sure she was looked after, this responsibility may now fall to you.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.