I am very close to my father, but not my stepmother. They have been married for 21 years. It is an unhappy marriage. My father will not get a divorce because he lives in an equitable-distribution state and not a community-property state, and judicial purview left him destitute after his first divorce.
He earns, and has earned, over six figures for the duration of the marriage. She brought no money into the marriage and no debt. She quit her job after six months of marriage and never returned to the workforce. They have no prenuptial agreement. He wants to retire, and alimony would make him work the rest of his life. He has told me he is waiting for her to die.
He lives comfortably, not extravagantly. Their home is paid for. He bought the home prior to their marriage, but she is listed on the deed. We both enjoy restoring old cars together. We have done this for the last 20 years.
He had a health scare this year that led me to ask about his will. If both of them pass, I am to inherit the home I grew up in. If my stepmom outlives him, he says I am listed partially. My relationship is very strong and open with my dad. I am not worried about bringing anything up, but I don’t know what to ask for. I am not an expert in this at all.
If he were to pass first, can she change the deed and cut me out of her will when she dies? My first reason: Could she sell the classic cars that I rebuilt with my dad? I see this as inevitable for two reasons. She has a history of giving away heirlooms to Goodwill that I received in my paternal grandmother’s will as a teenager. The jewelry was valued at $50,000, and had been in the family for generations. She knew this.
There are many other stories of her hurting me financially, psychologically, and emotionally. The second reason is that my own actions, if my father were to pass first, wouldn’t exactly warm her to me. I will not speak to her. I won’t provide care in her old age. Interactions with her are harmful to my own wellbeing.
She has no children. She has alienated all of her nieces and nephews similarly. My state does not have laws around supporting parents. She will be on her own. My father understands and supports my decision to have no involvement, but has not told my stepmother because he also thinks she might be vindictive.
Is there anything my father can do to protect my inheritance? I don’t wish her undue hardship. I have no issue with her living in the home as long as she is able, but I don’t want her to cut me off from something she did nothing to earn.
If her name is on the deed of the house your father bought, she owns half.
Your father is waiting for his wife to die first and your stepmother is probably planning on outliving her husband. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior — and if she has given away or sold family heirlooms in the past, it would make sense for your father to give you items that have significant sentimental and/or financial value sooner rather than later. Ideally, he should do this with his wife’s knowledge.
Similarly, it’s incumbent on your father to have these discussions with his wife today about his estate, including the vintage cars you have restored; he could, for instance, put your name on the deeds. Assuming he does predecease his wife, the less scrambling you have to do, the better.
Rules on disinheriting a spouse vary depending on the state. In a community-property state, a spouse is entitled to one half of marital property. In an equitable-distribution state, property is divided equitably or fairly based on many factors, including the length of the marriage, what each spouse had coming into the marriage, and the contribution each spouse made to the other’s earnings in terms of time, labor and/or money.
It may be that, as your father’s heir, you would receive more if he divided their assets now, but an estate-planning attorney who is familiar with his affairs can answer that. Unless there is a postnuptial agreement, you are correct that your stepmother can change her will any time she wants.
By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.
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. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.
The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.
More from Quentin Fottrell: