09 Jan The Moneyist: My late mother disinherited me and my siblings on her death bed — can we sue?
Through my mother’s first marriage, she gave birth to six children. When the oldest of those was 12 and the youngest was 3, she met my father who eventually became her second husband.
My father didn’t want his military and intelligence colleagues to know he married a divorcee with seven children, so they decided she should abandon her six children and start a new life. However, as they pulled out of the driveway, with all her kids in tears, one of my half-brothers ran after the car and they decided to take him with them.
I was told that my six half-brothers and sisters were cousins, not siblings. This was to ensure that if we talked to the neighbors, we would tell the correct story. Over the next several years, I, my mother, and my brother were terrorized by my father.
‘I found out later that my mother signed a will in the hospital with two of my half-siblings and a lawyer. The will stated that the two half-siblings involved would split the estate, worth over $600,000.’
Fast-forward to 1999 and I decided to stop talking to my parents since they were toxic people. I told my mother if I was disinherited, there was no reason to reconcile. Needless to say, we never reconciled. My father died in 2013 — I think — and my mother saw me at my paternal grandmother’s funeral in August 2016.
In November 2016, she went into the hospital. I bought her flowers every week to cheer her up, sent stuffed animals, and called the room to tell her I loved her. She died in a hospital in New York in January 2017. I sent a very beautiful, expensive wreath to her funeral because I really cared.
I found out later that my mother signed a will in the hospital with two of my half-siblings and a lawyer. The will stated that the two half-siblings involved would split the estate, worth over $600,000, minus $10,000 for one of my other half-sisters (who selflessly cared for my mother in the hospital) and $5,000 apiece for my mother’s three sisters.
The will also stated: “I also have six other children that are disinherited for reasons known to them.” The will looked very amateur and even had typos in it, much to my surprise.
The safes were emptied, the myriad antiques and jewelry picked through. The two that split the estate also refused to share any of the money or assets left to them since it “wasn’t in the spirit of the will.” However, the vast majority of the wealth left behind was from money my father made in the military and intelligence agencies, since her first husband was a janitor.
This has caused incurable rifts in the family and a lot of resentment among siblings. I live in Wisconsin and would probably have to fly to New York if I challenged the will. Do I open the can of worms and sue the estate which is in probate right now? Or do I sue my siblings? Do I have a reasonable shot of succeeding?
Disinherited and disenfranchised in Wisconsin
If you challenged the will and won, keep in mind that the will would be split at least six ways between her children. Is it worth putting yourself through this for $100,000 or less, given the financial and emotional costs of any legal challenge? Ask yourself why you want to pursue this. Is it to right the wrongs of the past? That, unfortunately, won’t be achieved by suing your mother’s estate. Is it to gain what you feel is rightfully yours? In this case, your mother’s will and actions throughout her life appear to show she had little regard for her children in life or at her death.
Undue influence is one of the hardest things to prove in court. You would need to prove that your mother on her deathbed feared that your two half-siblings would withhold their support or affection if she didn’t sign the will.
You don’t have to specifically name children that you disinherit in a will in order for it to be binding, according to Anthony Spark, a New York City-based probate attorney. So you have two other options — and one is far more arduous than the other. Undue influence is one of the hardest things to prove in court. You would need to prove that your mother feared your two half-siblings would withhold their support or affection, if she didn’t sign the will. “That’s really tough to prove,” he says. “You’re basically trying to get into somebody’s head.”
The only other option left up to you, therefore, is competence. Did her illness, medication or her stay in the hospital lead to any circumstance where she lacked that moment of clarity when she signed the will? “It’s easier to create leverage for a settlement through medical records and a doctor’s testimony,” Spark says. This has cropped up time and again in letters sent to this column. One of the of most recent such cases: The stepmother who sold the family home for $1 million. If your mother suffered from drug or alcohol abuse, undue influence would be easier to prove.
A slightly longer version of your letter created quite a lot of comment on this column’s Facebook Group. While some members suggested an “expensive wreath” was no replacement for showing up at her funeral, I don’t blame you for not attending. What’s more, letters are written hastily and I understand that you were likely expressing that you made an effort. But most people said walk away, let it go. Julia Richmond Oliver wrote: “Focus on being kind to people in your present and your future. You were able to live 17 years without the person.”
It’s hard to let go, especially after years of abandonment. But I believe it would help you live a happy life. No amount of inheritance is going to do that.
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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.