The Moneyist: My mother-in-law has three stepdaughters. What moral obligation does she have to include them in her will?
My in-laws have a complex family dynamic. My mother-in-law has five daughters; however, only two of them are biological. Only one of the three adopted daughters is on good terms with her. I use the term “adopted” loosely, as the other three daughters are from her boyfriend.
They were never married, and I do not believe my mother-in-law has any legal connection to the three other daughters. I do believe she played a large role in raising them, but I am not sure if the two estranged daughters even consider my mother-in-law as their mother anymore.
My mother-in-law plans to split her estate unevenly among her five daughters. My wife will receive the lion’s share, while the other biological daughter will receive quite a bit less (she has proven to be quite untrustworthy with money).
The three other daughters will not receive anything; my mother-in-law does not think she has any obligation to give them anything when she passes.
Is there any sort of moral obligation for my mother-in-law to provide an inheritance to the three other daughters? And what should be our response when the other daughters inevitably come to us demanding money?
Son-in-Law on the Winning Side
Your mother-in-law has no legal obligation to leave her children or stepchildren anything. If she were to die intestate, her legal beneficiaries would include her husband and biological children, assuming she did not formally adopt her stepchildren. In fact, one could argue that the only moral obligation she has is to make a will that honors her values and causes that she supported during her lifetime. That may or may not include family. Happily, it often does.
Let’s hope that no one comes to you after your mother-in-law has passed and demands money, but in the event that such a thing happens, simply tell the aggrieved party that you want to honor your mother-in-law’s wishes and abide by the terms of her will. But she could help avoid any such fracas — and ill will among siblings and stepsiblings — by leaving everyone something, even if she leaves the largest share of her estate to your wife.
“‘Good manners should direct your mother to leave her biological child and stepchildren something, even if it is a small token with a message of hope for their future.’”
In fact, mentioning beneficiaries in your will even if you intend to exclude them from it makes it less likely they will claim that a parent simply forgot to include them. According to Christina Crawford’s memoir, “Mommie Dearest,” her mother Joan Crawford’s will contained the following infamous clause: “It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them.”
According to the law firm Comerford & Dougherty: “By engaging in an open and honest dialogue, you can minimize the potential for strife and the possibility of a will contest. In particular, it is important to clarify why you gave each recipient a gift, the selection of your executor, and your thoughts about the family. Lastly, you are well advised to engage the services of an estate planning attorney who can help ensure your wishes regarding step-children are carried out.”
But to answer your question about your mother-in-law’s moral obligation: I believe that good manners should direct your mother to leave her biological child and stepchildren something, even if it is a small token with a message of hope for their future. The relationship remains after a parent dies, whether they realize it or not, and it can be hurtful and confusing to punish or ignore someone through their will. Why leave a bad feeling behind?
The worst thing you can leave someone after you’re gone is a question that goes forever unanswered.
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