My Conniving Stepmother Will Try to Steal My Entire Inheritance

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Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Lillian, Athena, and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

I have a question about family estate planning. My parents got divorced when my sister and I were very young. My dad remarried and had two children. He also began making quite a bit of money. He is now approaching 80 and his wife is 67. They have put their considerable assets into an estate plan with this basic structure: Dad and stepmom each have half of their assets to distribute. Dad has four kids, each gets 25 percent. Stepmom has two kids, each gets 50 percent. All fine. Here is the problem: My stepmom really hates my sister and me. To the extreme—excludes us from everything, won’t let us have time alone with our dad, etc. My dad has always allowed this so we don’t have much of a relationship, although recently he has expressed a lot of remorse and wants to make sure we are included in the estate as he did not help us with college costs or anything else over the years. My dad is highly likely to die first. If that is the case, can stepmom start giving assets to her two kids so my sister and I would get nothing when she dies? I just want to be prepared and not count on money that won’t actually be available to us.

—Just Want to Know What to Expect

Dear What to Expect,

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to know how your father’s estate would work without seeing the actual estate plan. Hopefully, their estate is structured as a trust, with half of the assets going to the surviving spouse. In this case, it’s harder for your stepmom to give away your father’s portion of the estate out of spite because there is clear division and survivorship rights (how property is passed after death). A typical trust structure would limit your stepmom’s portion to 50 percent of the estate, with you and your siblings getting your father’s remainder after your stepmother’s death. This is only one option of many your dad and stepmom have for structuring their estate. If part of his estate includes life insurance or retirement accounts where you and your siblings are the (only) named beneficiaries, your stepmom would not have access to these proceeds.

Such trusts make property ownership clear in the case of blended families, reducing the likelihood that your stepsiblings could claim your father’s portion of trust assets if your stepmom outlived him. If their estate is not structured to avoid it, your stepmom could remove you and your siblings from the estate’s beneficiaries after your father died. She could also have end-of-life costs (or go on a shopping spree) after he passes that leave her with nothing, remarry another spouse, or fall out of contact with you. Since your father and stepmother crafted a plan document (hopefully with a lawyer), some of these possibilities are likely spelled out in the estate plan.

Your best defense is to get precise information about the estate plan’s survivorship rights and trust structure. But even if it is equally partitioned in a trust, it’s best not to plan your life around someone else’s estate. Your father’s financial circumstances could change, he could have significant medical expenses, or you could become estranged. It’s always better for an inheritance to be a happy surprise than a terrible disappointment.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My 64-year-old husband has had enough with investing in his 401(k). Throughout our marriage, he has barely contributed to employer plans although making a great six-figure salary. While I also make a good salary (about $50,000 less than he does) I max out my contributions every year. This year, I lost well over $100,000 and he lost about $30,000. With retirement for both of us around the corner, he doesn’t want us to contribute to our retirement plans anymore and wants to move our funds to cash. I’m not an investment expert but want to wait the market out. It’s becoming a constant battle and of course, our investment advisor doesn’t agree with his strategy. What should we do with our money before we lose all our life savings?

—Frustration With Spouse’s Investment Knowledge

Dear Spouse’s Investment Knowledge,

The past few years had historically high returns on the market, so (if possible) don’t fixate on the lost dollar amounts in your portfolio right now. Even if the dollar value of your portfolio has decreased, you still hold the underlying securities. If you can stick it out until the market recovers as you want, you haven’t lost anything except on paper. But if your husband panic-sells all your equities while the market is down, then those losses will actually be realized.

It’s a challenging time to convince risk-shy folks like your husband that they should keep investing in a bear market. You could try to persuade him with charts and graphs about dollar-cost averaging, but it’s essential to recognize the validity of his stress about a fluctuating market when he’s planning to retire soon. Rather than cashing out his entire portfolio in a down market, it’s worth finding a compromise that will make you, your financial advisor, and him happy.

The immediate few years before retiring is actually a good time to shift your portfolio allocation from stocks to more bonds and cash. But certainly not all of it! With inflation so high (currently 7.7 percent), your cash loses purchasing power every year, so it shouldn’t be the only part of your portfolio. If he’s inclined to keep saving outside his 401(k), you can allocate those savings toward cash or Treasury securities as a counter-weight to your stock investments. If you hold a mortgage, the funds he would have invested in the market could be used to pay down the mortgage as part of your overall retirement strategy.

Generally, stockpiling cash right before retirement is a useful tool for weathering down markets. If you have a few years’ cash reserves, you’re much more likely to be able to ride out the storm without touching long-term investments. Try talking your husband out of cashing out his entire 401(k) by redirecting his energy into building up the rest of your reserves. If you haven’t already, consider sitting down to craft a retirement investment policy statement and use this as an opportunity to discuss what you will do five, 10, and 20 years into retirement when another bear market inevitably comes again.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

Do you know if there’s any recourse for loan forgiveness from a school that you were academically expelled from? I attended a small, “elite,” and VERY expensive liberal arts college right after high school that advertised themselves, particularly on their ability and commitment to “care for and support” each student due to their small size (and crazy high cost).

Unfortunately, I struggled to manage my academics from the get-go (hello undiagnosed ADHD in women!), and the response from the school was disappointing, to say the least. From the time I failed one class in my first semester, it felt like the veil of rosy promise was lifted and I was suddenly no longer a “valued student” but instead an idiot interloper. During my time there, I fought very hard to stay but faced information vacuums, little outreach or resources, and a heavy commitment to technicalities by the administration. I am proud to say though that after nearly five years, a lot of hard work, new medication, and a LOT of therapy, I’m set to graduate next spring from my local state school with a really awesome degree I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

The thing is, there are about $150,000 worth of loans (combo of student and Parent PLUS) from my four semesters at my first school that is about to come knocking. My parents and I have been able to keep deferring them while I’ve been finishing school, but with my graduation looming the time to start repayments is nigh. It pains me from both an emotional (and financial!) perspective to think about having to fork over such an insane amount of money over my life to a school that did everything in its power to get rid of me as soon as I showed signs of struggle. Are there any recourses for this type of situation or is it simply an expensive continuation of lessons learned?

—Didn’t Want Me But Still Want My Money

Dear Didn’t Want Me,

Congrats on nearly getting your degree at a school that makes sense for you. It’s a shame you were treated so poorly by your former school’s administration, and I understand those student loan payments will feel like an unfair reminder of that time in your life. Unfortunately, your former college doesn’t own your student loan debt. They already got paid when you took out your loans. The time to punish them would’ve been before your student loan servicer paid the tuition bill. Your best bet for discharging these loans will be through student loan relief programs rather than battling the university itself.

There’s one slightly off-the-wall option you could look into pursuing. Borrower Defense will discharge some of your Direct federal loans if you can demonstrate that the school violated state law related to your loan or the educational services provided. Borrower defense is more commonly an option for folks that attended for-profit colleges such as the Art Institute and ITT Tech, which often misled students in recruitment. If your college is not on the list of class action schools, investigate if your situation meets the application criteria. Generally, academic disputes and disciplinary matters (under which expulsion falls) don’t typically allow you to qualify for this type of loan relief. However, if your school mishandled your case fraudulently or with malice, you might have a chance at discharge.

Otherwise, when you graduate or the final student loan pause ends (whichever comes later), you and your parents will need to plan for the debt. I’d recommend investigating your different repayment options (including income-based repayment) using the studentaid.gov loan simulator to plan how you’ll handle the debt in the future.

Dear Pay Dirt,

When my maternal grandmother died, her estate went to my mother and my aunt. One of the things included in the estate was 40 acres of property in Oklahoma. The property is currently in both my mother’s and aunt’s names. My mother passed away about 10 years ago and my aunt before that. My mother had a will, passing everything to her five children. My aunt died intestate. She had three children. My mother’s family has been paying the property taxes since my grandmother’s death.

We now have an offer from someone to purchase this property. The five of us have no problem with this. It is my aunt’s side that is of concern. Cousin #1 and cousin #2 would be willing to sell, I believe. Cousin #3 is pretty much estranged. My other cousins haven’t spoken to him in over 15 years. It is uncertain if we can even get in touch with him. Cousin #1 and cousin #2 do not have the money to probate their mother’s estate, assuming that is what it would take to get the property into their names. We could pay to do so if the cost isn’t too high but would want to be paid back from the proceeds of the cousin’s half of the sale. What are our options here, especially if we can’t contact cousin #3?

—Looking for Direction

Dear Looking for Direction,

I will say this upfront: I am not an Oklahoma real estate lawyer, and I should not play one, even on Slate. Finding a real estate lawyer licensed in Oklahoma should be your next step—in addition to trying to get ahold of your estranged cousin.

According to my real estate lawyer friend, when multiple people own a property, the co-owners can force a sale of the jointly owned property using a court process called “partition action.” An Oklahoma lawyer will let you know about your options for a partition suit. The way your cousins’ share of the property will be divided will depend on Oklahoma’s estate law (per capita with representation or per stirpes). Since the majority of owners agree with the sale of the property, and you haven’t had contact with the eighth co-owner in over a decade, the judge would likely agree to a sale.

However, the lowest cost option will be to get ahold of the estranged cousin. Even a few hours of a private investigator’s time is likely to cost less money and time than a court process, especially because you already have an interested buyer. A partition suit might also require the property to be sold at a county auction for potentially less than the market value you’ve already been offered.

If you can find the cousin, inform him that you have found a buyer for the property and need his consent to sell. Tell him he will get his check for his portion of the sale’s proceeds if he agrees to sell. It’s unlikely he’ll want to hold onto the property for sentimental or logistical reasons after a long estrangement, so hopefully, he won’t turn down a check.

In any case, if your cousins are willing to sell the property but there are legal or investigator expenses necessary to make the sale possible, you can create a contract for repayment from their portion of the sale proceeds. Depending on how you feel about the property taxes, it’s also possible you can have some of the past year’s property taxes repaid from the sale proceeds. All of this should be explained to you by a lawyer, who you need to engage before you move forward!

—Lillian

My wife and I have four kids, (2, 6, 9, and 11). She’s a great mom, and the kids love her. She’s also a huge perfectionist, which stems from constant criticism from her parents all throughout her life. She’s been in therapy as long as I’ve known her and is doing great, except for one problem. We have all of our kids (except the youngest) do chores, but sometimes my wife gets frustrated at the quality of the housework my kids are doing, and then she just takes over herself.

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