When Someone Dies

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Chapter 1: As Death Approaches
Checklist:
• Who's in charge before the death?
• Does the person have an advance medical directive, also called a durable power of attorney for health care?
• If the person prepared an advance directive/durable power of attorney for health care...
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Who gets to keep Mom’s jewelry?
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Chapter: The Year after the Death

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A
This is very complicated, and lot depends on the specifics of Florida law so brace yourself for getting an attorney. But here are some guidelines. First, GET MAD! You can, and should, be angry with your step mother. Your father loved you and he would have expected her to treat you as one of her own. Do it for your father! Also, your stepmother will not behave unless she truly believes that she is at risk if she does not. So get mad; rattle the sabers. If your Dad had a trust, and if you are a name beneficiary, then under most states you are required to receive notice of that fact and you have a right to inspect and copy the trust documents. If your Dad had a will, and it was probated, then a copy of the will is also on file with the court in the county in which he died. You should send notice immediately to your stepmother and her attorney and the attorney you mention demanding an inspection. As to your rights, it is hard to say without reading the documents. Many times, a trust provides that the ‘income’ beneficiary—i.e. your stepmother who gets to reap the benefits of the assets while she is alive—allows the recipient to invade principal if she needs it for healthcare, education or even simply living. She may also be able to access ‘your’ money for her children’s needs, depending upon what is in the trust. Also, as you can imagine, there are many ways to cheat. For example, your stepmother could give all of her income to her children and then claim to the trust that she is destitute and then the trust would give her more money. Stuff like this happens. A lot depends on how much money is at stake because lawyers quickly become expensive, especially in family contests. I suspect you remember Bleak House by Charles Dickens, which is a clear case in point. You need to rattle her cage as a starting point. Let her know you are not going away. She is legally YOUR fiduciary as she must manage the trust assets for both her and, more important, your benefit as the final beneficiary. Talk to a lawyer right away. And feel free to contact me again. I would love to know what happens by the way so stay in touch! Good luck.
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Sounds like you are going to need a lawyer. Here is the issue. Did your mother intend to give the house to your sister and exclude it from the estate or did she put your sister on the deed solely for convenience? We need to know your mother’s intent. Also, your sister will need to prove that she either ‘bought’ the property or that Mom gave it to her fully intending to exclude the rest of you. It is also possible that your mother intended to give half of the house to your sister and the other half to you. The most important first question is: what does the deed say? Does is say your mom and sister are ‘tenants-in-common’ or ‘joint tenants, with right of survivorship’. There may also be other documents like a contract or a letter from your Mom to your sister. Just because she is on the deed does not mean she owns all of the house although if it is held as ‘joint tenants’ then legally title has moved into her name alone once your mother died. I would ask your sister what she intends to do. If she tells you that she thinks the house is all hers, then you probably need a lawyer, and soon. You may need to file a notice or something with the county to reflect your rights and the dispute; otherwise, you sister could sell the property and not tell you (assuming it was a joint tenancy). Feel free to send me more information, and please get a good lawyer now.
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In most states, there is no legal relationship created between a step mother and unrelated son after the death of the father. Typically, they do not inherit in the absence of a will. The bigger question is what your father did with his assets when he died. If he died without a will, many states provide that the spouse and his natural children divide the estate. It is also possible that he left the assets to her in trust with the expectation that after her death the principal would go to you. You can, of course, create a relationship with your stepmother and her children by including them in your will and estate plan. You should talk to a lawyer about your specific concerns.
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This is a very complicated question, and one which I regret I cannot answer.  You need to speak to a family law attorney. Good luck.