Step-Parents and Probate … It’s Complicated

Here’s a quick story. A father runs a successful farm. He and his wife have two children, both boys, a couple of years apart. The boys grow up, go to college, go on to solid careers. Mom dies, dad remarries. The boys, now in their late forties are not happy. Dad, though, is. The boys never accept the marriage.

Feelings are strained, visits fall off, the sons never thaw to their stepmother and never bother to hide that fact. The father is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the step mother, a successful health care professional, now retired, takes care of him. The sons keep their distance,

Before his illness, dad had a will that left his estate (valued at $250,000) to his sons to be split 50-50 with a stipend of $5,000 to go to his wife. Again, she had been very successful in her own right. Five years after he was diagnosed, he executed a new will. That will split his estate in two. He left 50% of the estate to his wife (and now caregiver) and the other half to his sons to be split evenly between them.

That second will was done openly, several friends and relatives witnessed it, the terms had been discussed with a series of financial and legal advisers, dad was perfectly – as happens with Parkinson’s, of course – lucid while physically infirm. As these things go, the will was as iron-clad as could be.

Dad finally died in 2014. His wife was by his side through it all right to the end.

The wills were read, checks were prepared, things seemed to be amicable. Then the sons objected. They sued, claiming – against all evidence (and there was a lot of it) – that the first will should have held sway. They claimed that their step-mother had unduly influenced their father and made him change his will.

The trial began and quickly – very quickly – turned against the sons. The evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of the second will. So, midway through the the trial, the sons changed their claim. They now claimed that the estate should have been divided in thirds, one-third for each of them and one-third for the widow.

At this point, it should be noted, the sons were suing over a difference of $25,000. This was pointed out by… well, everyone from opposing counsel to the judge and anyone who cared to offer an opinion. They did not seem to care, they pressed on to a jury decision.

They lost. The judge who had remained as impartial as possible though the, long, trial finally cut loose after the verdict. He opined that the sons appeared motivated purely by the dislike of their step-mother. That they ‘getting back at her’ by putting her through the trial. It’s like one of our recent posts – it’s seldom about the money. 

The judge ordered the sons to pay all the legal costs of the actions. The total bill came to slightly more than their inheritances. Combined.

If any of this seems familiar and you’d like to talk about it, please feel free to call us.