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The Moneyist: I was kidnapped by my father and only found my mother 5 years before she died — am I entitled to part of her estate?

This woman says her mother was told she had been killed in a car accident. Read More...

Dear Moneyist,

When I was two years old, I was kidnapped by my father’s family and my mother was told that I had been killed in a car accident. I found her 5 years ago. She died in January 2018. When I met her, she had married another man.

She said she would change her will, but we never got a chance to change it and I was wondering if I’m still entitled to half of her home and her belongings once my stepfather passes or can he control everything now and leave everything to his children?

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Am I greedy? I lost over 40 years with my mom and her stepdaughters were not very kind to her all the years that she and my stepfather were married. She never had any other children. I feel like that my girls and I are entitled to her personal belongings.

My mother’s stepdaughters never spoke to their father or my mother, or had much interaction with them while my mom was alive and, now that she’s passed, it sounds like they’re trying to take control of everything because he’s in his 80s.

I know that’s not what my mom would have wanted. I feel awful because all I really wanted was to meet her and I got what I wanted, but I also know that my mom wanted me and my family to have half of what she had.

Can you tell me how I would start the process to try to do something like that?


Dear Mary,

I’m glad you found your mother and I’m sorry that you feel she was not taken care of by her stepchildren during her lifetime. I hope her husband treated her well. If your mother didn’t leave a will, you are her legal heir. But her husband has rights too, and he may not want to part with half her estate and your mother may not have been in a position to leave you half of the home she shared with her husband. There are so many unanswered questions about your mother’s home, her estate and her will.

A last will and testament should be filed with the probate court in the county where your mother died. You may be reliant on the kindness of your stepfather to give you some of your mother’s personal items of sentimental value. That would not be an unusual or unreasonable request. If you were not mentioned, you could argue that your mother believed you were dead for many years and meant to include you. The statute of limitations on challenges varies; typically, you must file a challenge within one year.

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If, however, there was no will, you are her legal heir and, depending on what state she lived in, could be entitled to your mother’s separate property; that is, anything that is not deemed community property or marital assets under that’s state’s laws. In California, for instance, you would receive one-half of the separate property and your stepfather would receive the other half. Adopted children are also considered legal heirs. Your mother’s stepchildren, however nice or not they are, are not.

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The home is complicated. Did she own her home with her husband? If this home is co-owned or was purchased by your mother during their marriage in a community property state, it will likely go to your stepfather. Did she own this home outright, but leave her husband with rights of survivorship? In that case, you would inherit the home after your stepfather dies. Did she own the home outright, but leave it to her husband in her will? You need to answer these questions first and consult an estate lawyer.

Ultimately, approaching your stepfather is the best first step. You only had five years with your mother. You may have many more left with your stepfather. If he and your mother loved each other, this is a way you can continue the connection to the mother you never had, and by looking out for him if, as you say, his own children do not. Rather than focus solely on what you are owed, think about what you can do for him during this difficult time. You would also be doing your late mother a great service, too.

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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