New Family Dynamics and the Stepchild Challenge

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.

Beverly Brinson, a licensed clinical social worker in Texas and owner of Homewatch CareGivers of the Woodlands, went through a similar situation. Her mother and stepfather’s wills gave everything to each other, so when they passed, it split everything equally between the five children and stepchildren. However, he always told his three children they would get more.

Then Beverly discovered a secret, small account of her mother’s created just for her two children. Her stepsister also found paperwork identifying the account. After long discussions with her brother, they decided to put that money into the general “pot” to split between all five children.

“There was hostility and anger, mostly directed at me, because I was the executor of my stepfather’s will. But you come to the end and it doesn’t matter. It’s done. They’re gone. The most important question for my brother and I was: How do we live with ourselves? It wasn’t about the money,” Beverly said.

Both Emma and Beverly agree they should have talked about the wills years earlier.

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

“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. Then family members at least have a general expectation before someone gets critically ill and it’s handled before everything is really volatile. Later, there’s no going back. Have the conversation now,” Beverly said.

Beverly says silence is actually the second worst behavior when it comes to inheritance – lies are the first. In her situation, before he married Beverly’s mother, her stepfather told his children they would get everything. That changed and only Beverly knew the truth because he confided in her.

“I wish I had gone to my stepsister privately and asked her to talk to her dad without disclosing specifics and breaking my stepfather’s trust. I should have said: ‘You really need to talk to your dad about his will,’” Beverly said.

For those families who did not have the earlier conversations, like Beverly’s and Emma’s, the options are limited and difficult. The conflict mingles money, emotion and the law together, making it hard to discuss without becoming upset. Beverly recommends using a professional mediator, often someone with legal expertise, to help sort matters out when families reach an impasse.

“A mediator can separate out things and prevent the conflict from becoming overly emotional and irrational,” Beverly said. “Family members want everything to be what it was, but that’s not going to happen. A family mediator can focus on facts and cut through some of the bull people fight about, the stuff that’s unchangeable. It’s like the serenity rule: Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and know the difference. In Emma’s case, Edward is the only one who can change.”

“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.

Beverly believes more of these situations are on the horizon for many families across the country.

“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.

Beverly also says she now has a very close relationship with her step-siblings.

For more information, download and read Homewatch CareGivers’ Guide to Legal and Financial Planning.

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