Wealthy stepmom may still get greedy

DEAR BRUCE: My father recently remarried a year after my mother's death. He has an ironclad (so he says) prenuptial agreement. He is pretty savvy, so I don't doubt it. His new wife is independently wealthy and has no reason to want his assets. He has recently been put under hospice care, and his death is right around the corner. She has been making noises about having things changed, but I'm not sure what her plans are or what she can do legally. She has tried to put the medical power of attorney into her name (from mine) and take away my legal guardianship. He is not lucid at this time. If his bank accounts are only in his name and his IRAs and everything in the will were left to my siblings and me, can she touch us? Our mother's estate is in a disclaimer trust; half of what she and my father had together is left to us upon his death. His portion immediately moves to the estate. It's a large sum of money and assets, about $4 million total. I am the executor of his estate and will, but I'm leery of this impending problem. — M.P., via e-mail

DEAR M.P.: You will have to seek the services of an attorney, which you will be doing anyway upon your dad's demise. Whether or not his new wife can change the medical power of attorney is a question I'm unable to answer, but make sure that your attorney is aware of her intentions. The fact that he's not lucid would obviate any changes in his will, even if he chose to do so.

You mentioned the lady is independently wealthy, but that doesn't make her immune from greed. I can't tell you how to head off the impending problem. I can tell you that you'd be wise to bring all these details to your attorney's attention and have him take all necessary steps to be certain your interests are protected.

DEAR BRUCE: A friend of mine is separated from his wife of 30-plus years, but they are still legally married. They reside in the state of Virginia. The wife recently inherited a substantial sum from a deceased gay lover. Since they're married, does the inheritance belong to the husband as well as the wife? The wife plans to give half to the mother of her late lover. Can she do this without first consulting her husband? My friend says a divorce is in their future, but there are considerable financial matters to be settled first. He is still providing his wife's health insurance, and her mail continues to be delivered to his address, even though she has her own home. Are there "considerable financial ramifications" to be considered before proceeding with the divorce? — K.M., via e-mail

DEAR K.M.: Putting aside the somewhat sordid details of the wife's relationship, I believe your attorneys will tell you that the couple is still married and any assets acquired during the marriage result in both parties having an interest. You'll notice I didn't say "necessarily an equal interest." That is a matter of state law, and it will be resolved during the divorce. However, your friend should consult an attorney immediately to determine whether or not his wife has the legal right to dispose of a portion of that asset. Take care of this immediately, before it goes any further.

DEAR BRUCE: My husband is retired, and I will be at the end of next year. We both receive Social Security, and my husband has a retirement income of about $1,000 a month. He has $100,000 in an IRA, and I have $40,000 in my employer's 401(k). His IRA and my 401(k) are all invested in mutual funds. I'm concerned that perhaps we should be moving some funds into other areas. What do you think? — J.P., via e-mail

DEAR J.P.: You're asking whether you should switch out of mutual funds and, without knowing how these funds are performing, I cannot provide an answer to your question. You should take a close look at both the IRA and 401(k)s. How are they doing? How well have they done? If they're performing in a strong fashion, why move the money? If they are underperforming or flat-out losing money, think about switching.

DEAR BRUCE: Last October, my mother (who resided in an assisted-living home in New Jersey) passed away at age 99. My sister put all of my mother's money from her savings account into her own savings account. She refuses to show me the will and my mother's bank statements. She claims the will is null and void because the house that Mom owned was sold. She claims there's only $20,000 left and that she is taking more than half since she took care of all the legal affairs. How can I get a copy of the will and bank statements? — T.W., via e-mail

DEAR T.W.: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you will have to seek counsel. A will is not a public document until such time as it is filed for probate. In the event that it is not filed, your mother would have legally died intestate. If your sister refuses to cough up the will, you should go to the probate office immediately and have the court declare that she died without a will and apply to be the administrator. Understand that the sister will then be asked to sign off, which could get messy.

As for the will being "null and void," that's nonsense. The will applies to any assets and liabilities she may have left behind. You can ask your sister for a copy, understanding that only the original has any legal value. Until it has been filed with the probate court, it is of no moment.

Send your questions to: Smart Money, P.O. Box 2095, Elfers, FL 34680. E-mail to: bruce@brucewilliams.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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