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New Family Dynamics and the Stepchild Challenge

It’s a newer phenomenon: Stepchildren are trying to care for people who are not their original father or mother, and sometimes the situation can become tense or nasty. This is what Emma faces.

After Emma’s father died, her mother remarried a man named Edward. Edward’s three daughters were never close with Emma and her four siblings. More than 30 years later, the tension continues, especially due to the consequences of her mother’s death in 2006. Emma’s family assumed Edward would pass first, because he was nine years older than Emma’s mother, but it did not happen that way.

“When she passed, Edward was devastated. We took care of him. We had holidays with him and all my nieces and nephews call him grandpa. He is the only grandpa they’ve ever known,” Emma said.

Emma, her siblings, and Edward live in Massachusetts, where he receives elder care in an assisted living community. Problems began when he decided to move there and sell the house that had been in Emma’s family for 80 years.

Difficult Step: Family Dynamics

“We did not handle the situation very well. The morning of the move, one of my brothers and I cleared out many things we thought didn’t matter to Edward. However, when Edward discovered this, he was shocked. We had disposed of some things he wanted to keep. My mother had left all the property, including our summer cottage, only to her children. We were certain they’d both agreed to this, but he now claims she never told him about her will, and he didn’t know,” Emma said.

Edward recently started asking Emma and her siblings for money to put his grandson through private school. An ombudsman at the assisted living facility where Edward lives told Edward he was entitled to a portion of his late wife’s possessions, despite her will. He wants the stepchildren to sell the summer cottage and give him some of the profits.

“The whole thing with my mother’s will and the money is really frustrating. We all felt ties to Edward. It isn’t the kind of love you have for a father, but we love him in a different way. Now he’s arguing with us. He hung up the phone on me and he stopped talking to my sister. Money changes things, it really does,” Emma said.

 Emma now wishes they had talked about a will years earlier.

“Conversations are important. I can’t stress that enough. Then people know what is going on,” Emma said.

Tips for avoiding conflict:

Encourage your parents to open up their wills and let everybody know so there are no hard feelings or misunderstandings about how things will be divided.

Don't wait until there's a crisis or illness when people are more volatile and worn out. 

Have the conversation now.

Hire a professional mediator, someone with legal expertise. 

For those families who did not have the earlier conversations, the options are limited and difficult. The conflict mingles money, emotion and the law together, making it hard to discuss without becoming upset. 

“I suppose it would be good if one person from my side and somebody from their side and Edward sat in a room and talked – just to know we’re not trying to make things difficult, and it would probably be easier if there was somebody who is not on either side there. When you don’t speak, you assume things, drum up crazy ideas and create partial truths,” Emma said.

Plus, "It’s going to get worse with generations of families that have two or three sets of siblings and step-siblings. Especially among families who were families, but were never married, because there is no clarity unless their wills are very specific,” she said.

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