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Post: The Moneyist: ‘His wife is greedy and self-centered’: My father doesn’t have a will. How do I prevent my stepmother from taking over his entire estate when he’s gone?

Dear Quentin,

I am my father’s oldest child from his first marriage. I have a younger half brother and half sister from his second and third marriages, and I also have a stepsister. We get along, but don’t often do family gatherings.

My father doesn’t have a will. He lives in Washington state. He has recently had a couple of health scares. I’d like to know what, if anything, I can do if he passes without a will.

My father has told me some of his wishes, but his wife is greedy and self-centered. I fear my half siblings and I will not get anything he wants us to have. I believe his wife will sell as much as she can, and keep it for herself and my stepsister after she passes. 

My stepsister is very sweet and would split things as equally as possible, if she could make that choice. 

What, if anything, would my half siblings and I be able to do upon our father’s death?

Fearful in Missouri

Dear Fearful,

On a personal note, fear is rarely — if ever — a good motivator for decision making or living your life. Nothing untoward has happened yet, but you should have a conversation with your father about how it would save everyone — his wife included — additional grief after he passes away if he were to make a will, and make provisions for any possessions of sentimental value.

If, however, he dies intestate, the laws of Washington state will govern how your father’s estate is divided. In that case, your stepmother would inherit their community property, and half of their separate property. The rest of the estate would be divided among your father’s children. Your stepsister is not considered a legal beneficiary.

Assets that are not considered community property include life-insurance policies; funds in an IRA, 401(k) or other retirement account; property held in trust; payable-on-death bank accounts; and real estate held by transfer-on-death or joint tenancy. Without a will, probate can be a protracted and cumbersome process. 

Another option: You could use privacy as an argument to persuade your father to put some of his assets in a trust. Unlike probate, which is a public process — the equivalent of airing your laundry in full view of your neighbors — a trust is private. Another way to convince him to take a more active role in his estate planning: ask him to set up a living will, a stepping stone to making a last will and testament.

“Your living will is a way to dictate how long you would like end-of-life procedures to continue if you become incapacitated,” according to the Missouri-based Legacy Law Center. “This means that you can request feeding tubes, mechanical respiration, or other extreme measures to keep you alive. You can also choose to not be resuscitated or refuse to have your life extended with artificial assistance.”

Every family member feels they have a right to something, and that can skew our perception of others and make us question their agenda. It can also lead us to fill in our own narrative about a person’s character and motivations. This column receives a lot of letters about “evil” stepmothers. I can’t help but think that second wives get an awfully bad rap. 

That said, leaving a will and appointing an executor to oversee its execution shows a level of personal responsibility, and can prevent unnecessary arguments after your father is gone. It would not only benefit you and your siblings — if he chose to leave you a share of his estate, that is — it would also help smooth the transition for his wife, and your stepmother. 

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

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.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

• ‘I’ve felt like an outsider my whole life’: My father died without a will, leaving behind my stepmother and her 4 children. Do I have any rights to his estate?
• ‘He was infatuated with her’: My brother had a drinking problem and took his own life. He left $6 million to his former girlfriend who used to buy him alcohol
• She had a will, but it was null and void’: My friend and her sister are fighting over their mother’s life-insurance policy and bank account. Who should win out?

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