How Can My Stepmother Take Everything I Was Promised?

My father and stepmother were married for almost 30 years when he died. About 15 years ago he showed me their Wills. It said when both are dead, I am to inherit everything. Well, he died almost a year ago and when I tried to talk to her about getting some of his things we got in a huge fight and haven’t spoken since. I got nothing. I was to get things like his gun collection, Western art and cameras. I think my stepmother may have changed the Will after he died and left me out of it. Can she do that? Obviously it’s not what he wanted. She doesn’t respond to my calls or voicemails. What can I do? Ali in SE Oklahoma.

Dear Ali:
Yes, she can change her own Will, but not your father’s Will without committing fraud, that is. However, a Will only controls what is owned in one person’s name alone. If nothing was owned in your father’s name alone (no one else was on the title or deed), his own Will would have no effect. It would not even be probated.

Many married couples own all of their property and other assets in a way that passes the property directly to the surviving spouse upon the first spouse’s death. For real estate this is accomplished with the title Tenancy by the Entirety. For everything else (and anyone can title their assets this way), Joint Tenants With Rights of Survivorship also passes the asset to the surviving joint tenant at death of the first person.

The way it works is when one of the people (joint tenants) dies, the other becomes the sole owner. Then the sole owner e.g., your stepmother) can do as she pleases as now the asset is hers alone. A surviving spouse who has inherited everything can always change her own Will after the first spouse has died. There is no guarantee that anything in your father’s Will is in any way relevant.

A Will has no legal significance until it is probated. Wills are most often not probated if they control nothing, meaning no asset was titled in your father’s name alone. If you are the only child and probate was filed, you would have been contacted by the court to participate or be represented in the process.

Then, there’s the issue of estate plan updates. People who take their estate planning attorney’s advice update their Wills every three to five years or when a major change happens in their lives or circumstances. You said you saw your father’s Will 15 years ago. He should have updated it several times in that time span.

What can you do? Here are some options:
Since it is apparent that your stepmother is not going to take your calls, perhaps you could write her a polite, sweet letter asking for the things of sentimental value to you. If you remain calm, polite and respectful, she may respond in kind — although she doesn’t have to respond at all, kindly or not — nor does she have to give you anything.

If you have written, up-to-date evidence of your father’s desire to give you the guns, art, and cameras, and you are sure she has not already sold them, you could pursue the matter in court. But that is costly, can take years, is open to the public, and is usually hostile. If you think the relationship is damaged now, imagine it after such a step. Besides, if the guns, art, and cameras are not extremely valuable, a lawsuit is likely to cost more than the items are worth, even sentimentally.

If you believe there is some hope that the items are still there, that she might be willing to settle with you, and that the value of what you get is worth the lesser cost of estate mediation, then you could approach your stepmother with that option. You and she would communicate through a mediator who would help you negotiate a settlement. Generally, I can complete an estate mediation in as little as a day, costing a fraction of what a lawsuit would cost, and do it in private meeting rooms or an online conference rather than a public courtroom, Mediation goes a long way toward preserving or restoring relationships.

That’s your question, Asked and Answered, Gale Allison, Mediator and Attorney

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