Dear Liz: My mother died two years ago, and I am trying to figure out how to get any of her things that are family heirlooms. Her husband refuses to part with anything, including her clothing, saying he isn’t ready yet and that only when he is ready will he give us anything. Well, he is already remarried. I see items such as my great grandmother’s 200-year-old wicker basket that came from Germany and through Ellis Island sitting in their living room being scratched by a cat and used as a piece of everyday furniture. I have it in writing that the basket should be mine, but he won’t let any of us have anything. My mother told me she was making a list. He states she never did it. Everyone else is afraid to go to an attorney. My mother’s sisters want me to not rock the boat, but I feel two years and a new wife who is younger than me means someone has moved on.
Answer: Perhaps he has moved on, but there may not be much you can do about it.
If your mother had a will, it typically would have been filed with the probate court in the county where she lived. It would be a public record, so you could see how she wanted her estate divided.
In the more likely case that your mother didn’t have a will, then the laws of the state where she died would determine how her estate is divided. Often, those laws dictate that her property would be divided between husband and her children.
If your stepfather isn’t following her will or your state’s laws, you could hire an attorney to try to pressure him. But you have to weigh that expense, and the enmity it will cause, against what you’re likely to gain. Are a few clothes and a cat-scratched basket really worth the fight?
You may find a change in attitude and approach is more effective. Instead of getting angry and making demands, acknowledge to yourself that your stepfather has suffered a loss as well, even if he seems to have bounced back from it. Apologize if you’ve given offense, and then let him know you’d appreciate having something by which to remember your mother.
Whether or not you’re given the basket, be sure to use this experience to prevent a similar situation from befalling your own family. If you care about who receives what, then make the appropriate arrangements. Have a will drawn up and pick an executor who will abide by your wishes. Or, better yet, give heirlooms and other possessions to the recipients while you’re still alive so you can enjoy their appreciation.