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My stepmother wants me to relinquish my rights to my father’s estate. What now?

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Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly last September. He had been battling a terminal disease. He was immunocompromised, and a double whammy of pneumonia and COVID-19 was just too much. My stepmother said if I claimed a share of their house, I would be responsible for half the utilities, property taxes and general upkeep. 

Here is where it gets complicated: My dad did not have a will. I know I have some right to at least a portion of my father’s personal and marital property. My uncle shared his interpretation of the law with my stepmother, who asked me for my thoughts. I told her to hire a lawyer to make sense of it all, because I just know what I can see online and am not an expert.

Yesterday, she reached out to let me know that she had made a will and that I would get one quarter of her estate, while her three children would get the other three quarters. As she put it, “This is what your dad would have wanted.” She then informed me that her lawyer was sending me a letter that would relinquish my rights to my dad’s estate. 

‘We aren’t close’

I never agreed to sign anything, nor do I even know the full value of my father’s estate. She immediately moved to a new subject, and I wasn’t comfortable pushing the topic without additional research to understand my rights. I don’t like to make waves and I’m generally the type that gives in just to keep the peace. 

How do I make sure my stepmother is taken care of financially without completely giving up my rights to my dad’s estate? She lives on the other side of the country and I honestly will never see her or her children again. We aren’t close and this isn’t the “The Brady Bunch.” We were never a blended family. I told her to talk to a lawyer. 

My stepmother is in her 60s. She could remarry and fall victim to scammers, or even fall under the influence of family members who want to take advantage of her. I am not comfortable signing away my rights and crossing my fingers that everything works out when she passes. This isn’t the first death in my family, and it won’t be the last. 

Death and money bring out the worst in people. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this gracefully?

The Stepson

“She is either incorrect or deliberately peddling a falsehood that you would be responsible for half of the housing expenses if you claimed a share of the home.”


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Dear Stepson,

The only way to handle this gracefully is to ensure that you are both playing by the rules — that is, abiding by the intestate laws in Texas. 

Your stepmother has certainly proved that she is unable to handle this gracefully. By insisting that you sign a letter relinquishing your rights to your father’s estate, she is attempting to take advantage of your good nature. You are your father’s only child, and she doesn’t know what he would have wanted. Her stunt provides an estate-planning lesson for all of us: Sign a will to prevent these kinds of 11th-hour shenanigans. 

Do not sign the letter from your stepmother’s lawyer. If she intended to split your father’s estate fairly and equitably, she would do so now and not ask you to sign away your rights. As you say, wills can be changed — and if I were a betting man, I would gamble that she will either not write such a will, or write one to show you as leverage and promptly change it. If this doesn’t work, expect her to ratchet up the emotional blackmail.

Your stepmother does not believe it’s her responsibility to take care of you financially. On the contrary, she seems to feel it’s her responsibility to strip you of your inheritance, and she can only do this with your cooperation. Similarly, it is not your responsibility to take care of your stepmother. She appears more than capable of doing that herself. Plus, as you say, she has her own children.

Texas intestate law

My guess is that your stepmother is well aware of intestate laws in Texas. Given that your father died without a will and had a child from a previous marriage, his second wife would retain her half of their community property and one-third of your father’s separate property. You would inherit your father’s half of their community property and two-thirds of his separate property.

Separate property is anything acquired before their marriage, plus gifts or inheritance acquired during their marriage. In Texas, there is a twist: According to Article XVI, Section 52 of the Texas Constitution, your stepmother has the right to live in the house she shared with her husband for the remainder of her life, but ownership of the property will be divided in accordance with intestate law upon her death. 

“The laws of intestacy only apply to assets that would normally have passed through a will,” according to the law firm Roman & Sumner, based in Sugar Land, Texas. They don’t apply to the proceeds of life insurance, retirement-fund accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s, property owned in joint tenancy with a third party, property in a living trust or payable-on-death accounts. “This type of property passes to named beneficiaries or surviving co-owners,” the firm adds.

Speaking of potential scammers, your stepmother appears willing to fill that role. She is either incorrect or deliberately peddling a falsehood that you would be responsible for half of the housing expenses if you claimed a share of the home. If she continues to live in the house that she shared with your father, she would be responsible for upkeep, utilities, insurance and property taxes. As the “remainderman,” you are not responsible for these costs during her lifetime. 

You can handle it gracefully by hiring a lawyer and petitioning the court to appoint an administrator for your father’s estate.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. 

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

Previous columns by Quentin Fottrell:

‘I don’t want my wife to lose everything’: I’ve been diagnosed with dementia — I suddenly could not spell or write legibly

‘Things have not been easy’: My sister is a hoarder and procrastinator. She is delaying probate of our parents’ estate. What can I do?

‘I gave up a job that I loved passionately’: My husband secretly set up a trust that includes our home and his investments. What should I do?

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