(The following is excerpted from The Wolf at the Door: Undue Influence and Elder Financial Abuse.)
I read the latest summary sheet of our law firm’s disputed probate, estate and trust cases and came across an insight that should have been obvious (but wasn’t): About 50 percent of our active disputed-estate cases involve litigated differences between stepmothers and their stepchildren.
In all different cases — will contests, trust contests, life-estate challenges, probate objections, elder financial abuse, deed revocations or joint-tenancy quarrels — the interests and paths of stepmothers and stepchildren often collide.
Not an ‘Evil Stepmother’ Stereotype
I’m not implying any “evil stepmother” stereotype so familiar from fairy tales is related to probate litigation. Rather, my observations are merely indicative of the frequent conflicts in estate matters between stepmothers and stepchildren that I’ve come across. I’ve represented both sides, and I’ve seen how tensions in blended families can carry over into disputes over an inheritance, beneficiary rights to a trust or estate property.
I suppose that such conflicts 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; it’s just that the frequency of stepfather disputes is a fraction of stepmother disputes.)
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 65 today can expect to live, on average, until 84. A woman turning the same age today can expect to live, on average, until 86.
Widowed females also far outnumber widowed males, 11.2 million to 2.9 million. To the extent that these widowed females and males have stepchildren, it is obvious 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 percent of adult stepchildren feel close to their stepmoms. Moreover, studies show abundant evidence that stepmothers and their stepchildren do not grow closer over time.
Estrangement and Estate Problems
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.
Often, stepmothers and stepchildren in contested estates neither see the same facts nor reach the same conclusions in interpreting the facts.
An inevitable percentage of estates managed by a widowed stepmother with stepchildren heirs will end up as a battleground of hard-fought litigation over inheritance rights. In my experience, the more heavily lopsided the estate distribution, the more likely there will be an inheritance battle.
The trust and estate fights between stepchildren and their stepmothers may seem chaotic, but the facts giving rise to the disputes fit a few likely patterns.
Short Marriage Term
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 short-circuited by undue influence in the period before his passing.
Wills, estate plans, transfers of property, and trusts that are hastily drawn up — with beneficiaries changed during a husband’s last days — practically guarantee estate litigation.
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 balance the welfare of a father’s children with the welfare of his later spouse.
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 biological 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 the father’s death: not through open disclosure by a stepmother but more likely through records uncovered by stepchildren.
Disputes Immediately After a Death
Stepmother disputes will frequently break out immediately upon a father’s death. Many times, my firm has seen conflicts over where the deceased’s body will end up.
Where the father was first widowed and then remarried, issues like burial with his first wife will arise. Some stepmothers 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.
At times, stepmothers hide all information about the burial, so family members have no idea where the remains of their loved one are located. Such disputes are neither uncommon nor easily resolved.
The Hide-and-Seek Problem
Hide-and-seek may have been a fun game during our childhood, but it’s not so fun when we are 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 come under even more strain from the stepchildren’s feelings of family betrayal, and the stepmother is an easy mark as the source of betrayal. A lack of information about the location of a funeral, urn, or burial is par for the course in postmortem hide-and-seek games.
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 2 or 3 on the Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) scale.
CDR Stage 2 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. Other confusion may exist as to his relationships; he may think that his sister is his daughter or his spouse is his sister. CDR Stage 3 is the final and most severe phase of dementia. Now, the elder functions only with assistance from a caregiver. The elder has extreme memory loss. There is little or no understanding of orientation in time or geography.
Bad actors can try to exploit the vulnerabilities of an elder with dementia, a scheme called the “dementia gambit” — an effort to unduly influence the elder to engage in an act that 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 over deeds, powers of attorney, bank deposits or other assets to a person exercising undue influence.
Subtle Hints of Wrongdoing
Sometimes hints of wrongdoing are subtle. Questions as to the existence or nonexistence of estate planning documents are shunted aside. Often, 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. The family home is locked up, the locks are changed, and no one save the controlling party is allowed access.
Resolving Matters Early — Or Not
When people call me about stepmother-stepchildren disputes, one of the first things I usually tell them is that 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.
Those cases that escape early resolution often quickly escalate to probate, estate, trust and property disputes that epitomize the stereotypes surrounding classic battles between stepmothers and their stepchildren.
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