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Why are stepmother/stepchildren estate battles so common?

Disputes between widows and their stepchildren are among the most common type of estate battles. These can involve will and trust contests, accusations of elder financial abuse, deed revocations and much more.

In many cases, tensions between stepmothers and stepchildren while the husband/father is alive escalate into all-out legal battles after he dies. This can happen whether there are significant or even relatively small amounts of money and property at stake.

Of course, the same issues can occur with widowers and their stepchildren. However, since women generally outlive men, it's the stepmother/stepchildren scenario that's more common. Interestingly, studies show that only 20 percent of adults with stepmothers say they are close to them.

The more unevenly divided the amount left to the widow and the stepchildren, the more likely it is there will be a legal challenge. The longer it takes to resolve the issues, the more they're likely to escalate.

There are a number of common scenarios that can lead to protracted estate disputes.

  • The couple was married for a relatively short time, so the deceased only recently made changes that impacted his children.
  • The couple's relationship may have begun as an affair, where the deceased cheated on the children's mother, causing early and ongoing animosity.
  • The stepmother may have tried to keep her husband's children out of her husband's life as he grew ill and/or cut them out of details about his death and subsequent funeral arrangements.
  • The deceased had dementia. This can give children reason to believe that their stepmother influenced their father to make changes to his estate he didn't intend.
  • The stepmother has children of her own whom her stepchildren feel benefited unfairly from their father's generosity in life and/or death.

If you have a blended family, even if the children are adults, it's essential to have a comprehensive estate plan in place. It's also best if everyone understands what's in the plan so that there are no unpleasant surprises to your loved ones if you pass away before your spouse.

Many people would understandably prefer to avoid these conversations with family members, but they can help prevent lengthy, expensive, bitter battles when you're gone.

If you have reason to doubt that your parent's estate plan reflects what he or she intended or believe that there was wrongdoing by a beneficiary, an experienced California estate planning attorney can advise you of your legal options.

Source: Forbes, "Stepmothers: The Cause Of So Many Estate Fights," Michael Hackard, Next Avenue, Jan. 23, 2018

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