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Estate disputes: The stepmother phenomenon

Stepmothers face numerous hurdles when becoming part of a blended family and blended families are particularly susceptible to tension and family disputes. Estate disputes between stepmothers and stepchildren are a common occurrence.


Surprising statistics

A staggering 50 percent of disputed estate cases involve stepmothers and stepchildren. The life expectancy gap between men and women is partially responsible for the high percentage of cases. Women tend to outlive men by at least two years. Widowed women significantly outnumber widowed males. Recent national statistics reported 11.2 million widows as compared to only 2.9 widowers.

Never ending conflict

Relationships between stepmothers and stepchildren are prone to conflict in part because both parties perceive the other as a threat to their relationship with the father. The stepmother may feel the children intrude on her time with her husband while the children may harbor resentment towards the stepmother. This is especially true when the stepmother was a partial catalyst for the end of the father’s first marriage. The children feel a sense of loyalty to their mother and blame the stepmother for the dissolution of the marriage, no matter what led to the divorce. Unlike most relationships that strengthen over time, only about 20 percent of stepmother and stepchildren relationships improve with time.

Estate challenges

In most cases, estate disputes between stepmothers and stepchildren arise because the children feel jilted. While the stereotype of a wicked stepmother may be extreme, stepmothers can aggravate the problem by advancing her own interests and the interests of her children over the shares of the father’s children.

The length of the marriage can also lead to an estate dispute. If the marriage was fairly short but the stepmother profited considerably, the children may attempt to contest the will. Also, children may feel the need to challenge the estate if they believe the father suffered from dementia of another deteriorating mental ailment and lacked testamentary capacity at the time of signing.

One of the surest ways to avoid probate and estate disputes is to clearly communicate plans in advance. When heirs are aware of the plans it can avoid unpleasant surprises later on. Also, having an estate plan in place early on allows you to explain your decisions and attempt to sooth hard feelings. Your heirs do not have to agree with your plans, but they should respect them. Remember, decisions are easier to honor when they are made thoughtfully in advance with care.

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