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Probate litigation common in estate planning for step families

With a large population of seniors, Florida gets a substantial number of decedent estates for administration in its courts each year. A small portion of those matters will require probate litigation for the sake of resolving intractable family disputes. Many of the disputes arise among a decedent's children and their stepmother, concerning issues of favoritism and undue influence during estate planning.

These two groups often have conflicting needs and constituencies after the father's death. Such disputes may also involve stepfathers and stepchildren, but since women often outdistance men in lifespan, there are more stepmothers available for these circumstances. It appears from studies that most stepchildren and stepmothers do not get along well. That is not the exclusive reason why disputes arise, but it does make it easier for the triggers to go off.

One factor that will signal a coming dispute is a lopsided distribution framework in the decedent's will. Favoritism is a red flag to a stepmother's stepchildren. Keep in mind also that the stepmother is usually the executor under the decedent's will. Therefore, she will tend to do what she can to influence the distribution toward her own children as opposed to the decedent's natural children.

One who is making a will where stepchildren may be involved may want to take great care to not show inequality in the will. If such favoritism is absolutely necessary, the testator will want to work with his or her estate planning attorney to create wording in the will that explains the purpose of each bequest that may be questioned. Short-term marriages between Florida seniors can be easy predictors of post-death disputes between stepmothers and stepchildren.

Any last-minute changes of beneficiaries and/or personal representatives in the will can be a breeding ground for undue influence by those negatively impacted. Where a stepmother keeps information and secrets from her stepchildren or takes estate legal actions in secrecy to favor her children, she should expect probate litigation. There are similar factors that can trigger disputes, but an experienced probate attorney will encourage the parties to keep their heads and remain in control while discussions are conducted to resolve the conflict.

Source: forbes.com, "Stepmothers: The Cause Of So Many Estate Fights", Michael Hackard, Jan. 23, 2018

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