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Post: The Moneyist: ‘She will sail into the sunset with my dad’s belongings’: My father died and my stepmother is moving to France. There was no memorial. What can I do?

Dear Quentin,

My dad passed away and his wife — my stepmother — has been ignoring all the family. I have made numerous attempts to ask questions, but I have been blocked. And her son is accusing us of just wanting our dad’s stuff. I have no money to seek advice. I don’t work because I’ve been sick.  I have tried the nice approach and I have not gotten an answer — only silence.

My stepmother is talking about moving to France, and if that happens we will be left with no answers. My dad died in France while visiting her family, and they had the funeral there. I missed out on saying goodbye. We were promised a memorial, but nothing has happened. We were also promised some of my dad’s ashes and some jewelry, but once again we have been left waiting. 

I am scared that my stepmother will move and we will not hear from her again. I don’t know anything about our rights. I know she is my dad’s spouse, and so she is entitled to things. But we have nothing to remember our dad by. All I have are a couple of T-shirts that I received from my sister. If I don’t do something now, no one will.

My stepmother knows we have no money to do anything. She will sail into the sunset with my dad’s belongings, and we will be left with nothing. My stepmother’s family pushed my dad’s family away and withheld information about his health from me, and now we are getting the silent treatment. We are being treated unfairly, and I don’t know what to do. Can you help?

Grieving Daughter

Dear Daughter,

When a parent dies intestate — that is, without a will — you are beholden to your local intestacy laws. If your father had a will, it should be filed with the probate court in the county where he resided when he passed away. But grief and greed are terrible bedfellows: Your stepmother seems unwilling to share any personal items from your father’s estate, and you are left wondering where to put your grief and your anger at being treated with so little compassion. 

For those living in the U.S., intestate laws in each state dictate who gets what. In California, for example, your stepmother would inherit all community/marital property — a house they jointly owned, for example — and the children would receive one-third of the separate property from the estate. In Texas, she would inherit all of their community property and one-third of your father’s separate property, and would have the right to use his real estate for life.

Intestacy laws in other countries also vary. In the U.K., you and your siblings would only inherit if the estate is valued over £270,000 ($308,000). Anything above that amount is divided 50/50, with half going to the spouse — your stepmother — and the other half divided among the children. The spouse is also entitled to the “personal chattels” or  “movable property” belonging to the deceased, excluding cash. Unfortunately, that may include items of sentimental value.

You are not powerless. You can hold a memorial service for your father and invite his friends and family. It could be as simple as you like: You could have it in a local park, a friend’s garden or any place that meant a lot to your father. What matters is the people who show up, the words of remembrance that are spoken, and the ceremony — which does not have to be religious but will give you some kind of closure and the chance to say goodbye to your father. 

You can also seek out free legal aid. A lawyer will give their opinion on whether or not you have a case. Whatever happens, you have a choice to make on a different kind of legacy: Let go of your stepmother and her unwillingness to cooperate with you or risk compromising your emotional and mental health by railing against her actions for months or years to come. At some point, we must accept the outcome, however unfair it may seem, and move on.

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.

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Learn how to shake up your financial routine at the Best New Ideas in Money Festival on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in New York. Join Carrie Schwab, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.

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