12 Aug My Dad Remarried. Am I Entitled to His Estate? Shelly Joyner, Associate Attorney
Well, probably not. One of our many rights as Americans is that we’re allowed to leave our assets to anyone we want. A father has the right to not leave anything to his adult children, regardless of the existence of a stepmother or not. We can leave our house to a charity. We can leave our investment accounts to our alma mater. We can leave every penny that’s left to the animal shelter down the street. Gone are the days of Downton Abbey where we’re searching for a male heir to become Earl because the law says so.
However, in most states, including Texas, there are default laws that resemble old English laws of inheritance in case a person dies without any specific instructions. When someone dies without leaving their own written instructions, the courts decide what the closest thing to “fair” is for the people left behind. The legal term for dying without instructions is dying “intestate”.
If someone dies intestate, generally (after a substantial court process) the estate will go to a spouse. If there is no spouse, then kids. If there aren’t spouses or kids, then to parents…then brothers and sisters…then brothers’ and sisters’ kids…then on and on and on until the entire estate is distributed via a lengthy court process.
The existence of a stepmother, or step-parent of any kind, changes all of this. For example, let’s say your father dies intestate and he and his wife/your stepmom had a house together. In Texas (a community property state), your dad owned half of the house and she owned half of the house. She gets to keep her half of the house, but you and your siblings get an interest in the other half. However, your stepmom gets to live there for the rest of her life, and you can’t kick her out. Sounds complicated, right? It can get downright ugly.
So how do you avoid a Texas-size episode of Downton Abbey? Plan ahead by having a professional estate planning attorney help you do what’s best for everyone.