The Moneyist: My stepfather and mother pooled resources to buy a home. My mom died in 2003 and he just passed away. His kids are selling their house — am I entitled to anything?

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Dear Moneyist,

My mother was married to our stepfather for 20 years. She died in 2003. We’ve always had a great relationship with my stepfather and it continued until his passing a few months ago. The house that they lived in was bought with the proceeds from two homes they sold when they first married.

My stepfather lived in the house they shared until he passed just a few months ago. My mother had a will, which left each of us very little when she passed in 2003 (a small amount of cash. plus some jewelry). His kids recently listed the house for sale.

Also see: ‘My husband’s kids hate me and refused to come to our wedding, yet he is leaving them all his property.’ How can I negotiate to secure my future?

We’re wondering if we are entitled to any of the proceeds, considering our mother contributed to the purchase of the house? His son is the executor of the will and has made no mention of us inheriting anything once it sells. What are your thoughts on this?


Dear Stepson,

This is a cautionary tale.

Your mother left so much up to chance by not hiring an estate planning lawyer and not leaving her half of her estate to her children. They could have agreed that half their home was to be put into a trust for you and your siblings, while allowing your stepfather to live out his days there, or vice-versa, depending on who died first. Then their home could have been split between their children.

Also see: As a baby boomer, I didn’t grow up with this culture of entitlement — do I have to leave my estate to my children or spouse?

Without a proper estate plan, you are relying on the kindness of your stepfather and/or stepbrothers and stepsisters. Perhaps your stepfather and mother assumed their kids would divide up their assets fairly and squarely, but what’s fair and legal, and what’s ethical and moral in this situation is subjective. What is clear: Your stepfather and mother left too much up to chance.

In California, if your mother died intestate (without a will) your stepfather would have inherited all of their community property (their home) and one-third of her separate property. The rest would have gone to you and your siblings. Of course, these are difficult conversations to have, but the time to claim two-thirds of that separate property was in 2003 when your mother passed away.

Recommended: ‘What did he do with all the money?’ My dying husband cashed his $700K life insurance and emptied his bank accounts

Over the years writing this column, I have heard from so many adult children whose father or mother has predeceased their step parent. It was never pretty. Exhibit A: “My stepmother told me she wasn’t required to file my father’s will — then she left his house, cars and investments to her kids.” Exhibit B: “My stepfather wants to move his new wife into my late mother’s house.”

You could appeal to your step siblings’ goodwill, assuming you would have done the same in their place. This house belonged to your stepfather, and his children are his only legal heirs.

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 FB, +2.76%  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.

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