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POST-DEATH: Making Good Decisions By Surviving Spouses

What are the initial issues we should be considering when a loved one dies?  The dynamics range as much as the difference between families. Here are a few rules of thumb that appear to go a long way after a loved one is deceased.

Separate the legal and human issues.  This is so much easier to say than do, but it really gets to the heart of the matter.  Shortly after someone dies, when emotions are bubbling below the surface, is not an ideal time to be confronting loved ones on financial issues.  

I was recently speaking with a woman involved in a second marriage.  The woman wanted to be fair with the children of a first marriage. In addition, she wanted to maintain a warm relationship that existed prior to the death of her husband. Unfortunately, in order to show her goodwill, she signed off on certain documents that were adverse to her interest. Her goodwill had backfired when the adult children tried to take her home.

Thus, while this woman did everything she could to maintain a relationship, the children of the first marriage were simply not interested.  They had their own lives. They, for whatever reason, were not interested in a continued personal friendship with their stepmother.

The adult children were seeking to maximize their inheritance.  Unfortunately, the stepmother was seeking family continuity. The adult children took advantage of this. Now, it is up to the courts to attempt to set things right.

This is a cautionary tale.  Here were a few things the stepmother could have done to avoid finding herself in a contested legal battle.

1. Plan Ahead.  While everyone should have some of legal estate planning ranging from a simple Will to a complex Trust, this is particularly true with blended families.  A comprehensive estate plan lays out detailed instructions on how assets are to be handled, and the process of putting it together helps surface potential issues when there is time to adjust and clarify.

2. Retain Your Own Attorney.  Before you sign any legal documents right away, be sure to have your own attorney.  In this case with the stepmom, it was the stepchild’s attorney who drew up the documents and had her sign.  She thought it was her attorney. Furthermore, she did not fully understand the consequences of the documents she was signing.  

3. Keep the Personal and Legal Separate.  You can say you are not ready to discuss a matter yet.  The stepmother would have been greatly served by simply stating she will not discuss the matter further.  

4. Be Transparent.  One thing that is helpful in most instances is to simply be transparent about the process.  While in certain contested situations, the less information the better. In other words, a summary of the process, anticipated timelines, and disclosures go a long way in managing expectations and preserving goodwill.

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