My wife’s stepmother is deceitful — can we stop her from stealing our family’s assets?

Dear Moneyist,

I read your column regularly and am afraid my family may be going down the path of so many letters you have received.

My father-in-law is in poor health and he married to a deceitful woman after his first wife passed. While he has stated his kids will be “taken care of” after his death, that is about all he has said. He will not provide any copies of wills or trusts, nor discuss his current finances. That has always been his style, as to do otherwise would be viewed as bragging.

I am afraid his current wife will hide assets, transfer them, or outright sell them before any legal activity would commence after his death. We are pretty sure this situation will ultimately end up in a major legal battle, which we would like to avoid if at all possible.

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What preemptive steps do you recommend my wife take, knowing that her father will not share documents and information? Should she hire a lawyer now to be ready to go once he passes? Contact the financial adviser of his assets? Contact the lawyers who drew up his will and trust?

I believe your advice for this situation could help many of your readers avoid heartbreak before it is too late. Luckily, we have planned and saved, and do not require additional money to have a secure life. And my own kids won’t suffer the same fate, as they know our current financial status and intentions upon our death.

Worried son-in-law

Dear Worried,

When your father-in-law dies, an executor will be appointed to oversee his estate. His will should outline what he wants done with it. If he doesn’t leave a will, the law of your state will take precedence. Your wife could petition the probate court to appoint an independent executor. Or she could propose herself as an executor. However, due to client confidentiality his lawyer won’t speak to you or your wife about the contents of your father-in-law’s will.

You don’t say why your mother-in-law is a deceitful woman. Is it a hunch? Was it something she said? Or something she didn’t say? In the history of this column mothers-in-law have gotten a particularly bad rap. There was the mother-in-law who didn’t want to care her husband with Alzheimer’s and the mother-in-law who secretly charged $50,000 on six credit cards. Only stepmothers have received more public opprobrium than mothers-in-law.

Also see: My father killed himself — my stepmother blocked access to his home

And so to the flip side: Perhaps your mother-in-law ain’t so bad. She may have a totally different perspective on your father-in-law. She could love him with all her heart. Money could be the last thing on her mind, as she watches the man she married become increasingly frail. Anytime I have a disagreement with a friend, I try to tell myself, “We are living in two completely different movies.” Each scene has a thousand potential angles and character motivations.

Take the three versions of “Stella Dallas,” the story of an ambitious mother who marries a rich man. She is redeemed in all three films, but the melodramatic 1937 version starring Barbara Stanwyck couldn’t be more different from the cheesy 1990 movie with Bette Midler or Belle Bennett’s poignant 1925 silent version. In each film, she peers through a window of a ritzy townhouse in the rain and watches the veil lift to reveal the face of her estranged daughter on her wedding day.

Has your father-in-law taken care of your wife? It all depends on what your wife believes she deserves. Half of everything? One-third? A small cash amount? As Lisa Plaut writes on the Moneyist Facebook Group: “Be happy for your father-in-law that he found someone to share his life with rather than dwell upon what you might or might not receive.” Lynette Kingeman adds: “He is entitled to be married to whomever he likes and honestly can do whatever he wants with his money.”

Sometimes, it’s best to do what Stella Dallas does in the final scene of that movie. Be happy that other people are happy, smile through your tears in the rain and, summoning up all the dignity of the moment, turn around and walk away.

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 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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