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The Moneyist: ‘The past 2 months have been filled with turmoil and heartache’: My stepfather has dementia, and his sister is badgering him for money. How can I protect him?

Dear Quentin,

The past two months have been filled with turmoil and heartache. My stepdad of 43 years is in a dementia unit as of November 2022. He was diagnosed six years ago but was taking his dementia medication and was fully functioning in all aspects of his life until he was hospitalized for two weeks in October with sepsis. 

His and my mother’s wills were made more than 30 years ago. They consulted with a certified elder attorney in June 2022, and they did not want to make any changes. In September 2022, my mom was admitted to the hospital via air-ambulance service, and my stepdad was worried that he could lose her. (She is alive and well today.)

On the way to visit my mom in the hospital, my stepdad called his nephew. This set in motion a chain of events. I had only met his nephew once in the past 43 years, when he attended my stepfather’s birthday party. He had not sent my stepfather any Christmas cards or even phoned him in over 40 years. 

“‘His sister previously sued her eldest brother for undue influence over their mother’s will.‘”

On Day 2 of my mother’s hospitalization, my stepfather’s sister called and badgered him about money. This was followed by calls from her daughter-in-law, also demanding money. He has seen his sister twice in 40 years. He told his lawyer he doesn’t want his family getting anything, as they never did anything for him.

His sister sued her eldest brother for undue influence over their mother’s will when their mother passed away 30 years ago, and she rounded up the other siblings to share in the cost of the lawsuit. She has since started to harass me and my mother by phone and text and has had other family members call or text seeking information.  

Last week, she sent the state police out to do a health-and-safety check, which upset and scared my elderly mom. How do I protect my stepfather’s and my mother’s interests from this scheming and conniving sister who has dollar signs in her eyes? They all live in Florida.

The Stepdaughter & Daughter

Dear Stepdaughter & Daughter,

There is a reason your stepfather’s sister and her family are demanding money now: They know that if he dies, they will have little, if any, hope of receiving anything.

You have two sick parents, and your mother is obviously worried about her husband. This is not a time to allow greedy relatives to harass and bully you, your mom or your stepfather. That’s why God invented the “block” button. Sending police on a health-and-wellness check, especially after making calls to demand money from your father, seems like a menacing act designed to intimidate you. 

In Florida, as in other states, a testator must be of sound mind to make a will or to make amendments to that will. “It must follow the same protocol as the original execution, or it may not be deemed valid after the testator’s death,” according to this advice from Elder Law P.A., a firm based in Lantana, Fla. Your mother and stepfather’s attorney will be able to best advise you, but they may want to consider an order of protection against cyberstalking and harassment.

Consult with your mother and the attorney. In Florida, a will must be witnessed by two competent individuals, among other stipulations. You can read more about the terms that could invalidate a will here. But even if your stepfather died intestate — without a will — your mother would inherit your stepfather’s estate under Florida intestacy law. Stepchildren and siblings do not automatically receive a share.

“It’s true that Florida residents can leave their assets and property to whomever they like in a will — children, relatives, friends, or even organizations,” Casey C. Harrison, a Gainsville, Fla.-based attorney, writes in this guide to who inherits in Florida. “But when that will is ambiguous, can be challenged, or simply doesn’t exist, the formal family ties suddenly become more important.”

“Your stepfather’s will should not be ambiguous — listing ‘children,’ without naming you, could cause confusion for you as a stepchild.”

He goes on to say: “When a deceased person had been a caregiver of other people’s children, it can create a situation where the family assumes these children will inherit when in fact they don’t fit onto the list. This most often happens to stepchildren who grew up in the deceased person’s household. In other cases, a grandparent or close friend of the child’s parent may take a child on as a ward in a formal or informal guardianship.”

Florida will consider a person’s interest in an estate before considering a will challenge, Harrison writes, “so it is important that the potential heir go through the details of their relationship to the deceased with a probate attorney before filing the petition. If you would not be able to inherit as an intestate heir, as in the case of an unmarried partner or unadopted stepchild, you will generally not be able to challenge the will.”

Your stepfather’s will should not be ambiguous — listing “children,” for instance, without naming you, could cause confusion for you as a stepchild. All things being equal, if your stepfather passes away, his estate will be distributed per the conditions of his will — in this case, his estate would pass to his wife. If he did note specifically that he does not wish his sister’s family to inherit a dime, it would obviously make any challenge from them more difficult. 

Looking ahead, having power of attorney for your mother and stepfather would give you the right to make financial decisions on their behalf. A person who has power of attorney has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the individual and to only make investments with their permission (although that power that can sometimes be abused). A medical power of attorney would give you the legal right to make medical decisions on their behalf.

The good news in this stressful and upsetting family drama is that your stepfather does have a will. It appears that he went to great pains to ensure that his estate would be divided according to his wishes. It also sounds like the unwelcome calls and reported bullying from his sister and other relatives may have only prompted him to consult with his attorney to make sure his will was solid.

I hope your stepfather makes a recovery from his current illness and that you have the opportunity to regroup as a family with your parents’ attorney.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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