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The Moneyist: ‘I have nothing from my father. Not a single scrap of anything’: My father took his own life, and my stepmother took everything he owned. How can I make this right?

‘I began digging and found out that my stepmother, who didn't tell me about my father's funeral or pay for it, took everything he had.’ Read More...
Dear Quentin,

I have a tough one for you. 

My father died 14 years ago in Florida. I was 21 at the time and living in Arkansas. He had remarried my stepmother, but had been estranged from her for at least two years. My stepmother and my father were both in serious relationships with the people they were dating. 

My stepmother has children from her previous marriage. My stepmother and father shared no children, and my father and his girlfriend shared no children. I am his only child and was born during his 16-year marriage to my mother. 

I believe my father killed himself in 2008. But for years, no one believed me because they believed it to be an accidental overdose. You see, he had just had a back surgery and that procedure made his pain much worse, not better. He was prescribed antidepressants and painkillers, so everyone thought he overdosed on the pain pills after having one too many vodkas. 

‘I got the public record of the police investigation regarding his death, and in that record I discovered that he had left a handwritten suicide note.’

This past July, I decided to know more. I got the autopsy and found out he OD’d off antidepressants. I got the public record of the police investigation regarding his death, and in that record I discovered that he had left a handwritten suicide note. It’s been 14 years now since his death, and I’m finally ready to deal with this. 

I began digging and found out that my stepmother, who didn’t tell me about my father’s funeral or pay for it, took everything he had: his possessions, car, all of it. 

What can I do — and what should I do?

I have nothing from my father, not a single scrap of anything, and I have blamed myself for 14 years for his death. My stepmother would have known about the letter, and every time I asked her over the years about what happened, she was hiding this from me. 

Please help.

A Giving Daughter Who Misses Her Dad

Dear Giving Daughter,

You have time on your side, and you don’t have time on your side. Let me explain.

The statute of limitations in Florida restricts the amount of time you have to contest a will (typically 90 days) and to file a claim against the estate or trust of a descendant (two years). So the window of opportunity has passed for both of those courses of action, given that your father passed away in 2008. That’s not to say you would have been successful even if you did file a legal challenge, particularly if your father had left a will. 

If someone dies intestate in Florida, however, and the deceased spouse has a child from another relationship, the surviving spouse receives half of the estate, and the child of the deceased spouse receives the other half. But that would apply to your father’s separate property, and I am assuming that your stepmother and father shared assets. For instance, they may have co-owned a home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. 

You do have time on your side for everything else, and for you this is the really important stuff. Your stepmother and your father’s relationship may have been far from perfect, but they chose each other. I feel your pain that the cause of your father’s death was kept from you, but people don’t always act in a logical or proper fashion during times of grief. And as counterproductive as it may seem now, she may have been trying to protect you.

‘The only inheritance you should focus on now is the one you bestow upon yourself: forgiveness for your stepmother’s actions, and compassion for your father and how he died.’

It has been 14 years since your father passed away, and your grief and hurt about how your stepmother handled his affairs has become mixed up with the veil of secrecy surrounding his death, and your own feelings of antipathy — however justifiable — toward your stepmother. The only inheritance you should focus on now is the one you bestow upon yourself: forgiveness for your stepmother’s actions, and compassion for your father and how he died.

You are looking at possessions that are now long gone, and focusing your attention on your former stepmother, who is no longer part of your life. She is in the past. It’s over. It’s time for you to move on with the support of a therapist rather than a lawyer, and a community of friends rather than the stepmother who probably had her own emotional demons to deal with. This was a traumatic time in your life, and now is the time to start your healing.

Remember the good things about your father. You have a big heart. I know that because it’s still hurting after all of these years. But hurt and trauma and anger can freeze you in a moment of time, keep you rooted to one terrible event in your life, and prevent you from realizing your dreams and finding your own path. That’s not what your father would have wanted.

Now that you know the truth, find a way to look forward. There are great adventures that await you, and the weight of this experience will only hold you back.

Learn how to shake up your financial routine at the Best New Ideas in Money Festival on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in New York. Join Carrie Schwab, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.

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. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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