Dear Liz: Your column from the person who wanted “heirlooms” from her stepfather is applicable to my situation. My husband’s daughter wants literally everything in my house, even though he and I commingled our assets 23 years ago and have been married more than 10 years. How do I access public records to see if her mother did have a will?
Answer: It’s interesting that your husband can’t clear up this mystery. Presumably he would know whether his late wife had a will and what it said.
You can check with probate court of the county where she died to determine if a will was filed. If she had a living trust, that would be private and probably not filed with the court, but your husband should know what it said.
If she had no will or living trust, then your husband was supposed to follow state law in dividing up her possessions. In community property states, without a will or trust he typically would inherit stuff acquired during their marriage, plus a share of any separately held assets — possessions she brought to the marriage, said Burton Mitchell, an estate planning attorney with Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell in Los Angeles. In other states, your husband might inherit half of her assets, with the other half divided among her children, Burton said.
State laws vary widely and there are all kinds of exceptions to the general rules, so you may need a lawyer’s help in sorting out what belongs to whom.
In any case, you’d be smart to hire an estate-planning attorney at this point. Your stepdaughter may not be able to pursue a legal case after all this time, but she could cause trouble when you or your husband dies. Any time a relative creates a real fuss about an estate division, it’s good to get a qualified attorney’s advice as you craft your own wills or living trusts that spell out who gets what.
As you make your plans, try to be guided by kindness and compassion. Your stepdaughter may not have a legal right to lay claim to every item in your home, but letting her have items of strong sentimental value may be the right thing to do. Just think how you would feel if your father’s second wife gave your mother’s special jewelry or your grandmother’s treasured antiques to your step-siblings. Lifelong rifts and family feuds have started over less.
Then again, all parties need to remember that stuff is just stuff. What’s a precious heirloom to one generation may wind up in the next generation’s garage sale. Resolving to put relationships first, instead of possessions, can really help all sides avoid painful battles.