Help my friend find out if she can claim her inheritance.
May 11, 2009 8:46 AM   Subscribe

My friend would like to know if is she is entitled to her father's and grandmother's properties, so I thought I'd submit her question to metafilter. Her father and grandmother have been deceased for several years now so she is unsure where to start looking for answers.

This is the full text of her question:

I am interested in how I can find out more about whether I am entitled to my father's and grandmother's property. Both are deceased. I'd like to know where I can go to find out certain information such as what I may be entitled to with regards to property, land, and veteran's benefits. Here are the facts:

My father was a Vietnam veteran. He and my mother were married but divorced shortly after I was born. He never paid child support until she went to court about it before I started college for help with expenses, and he made two $100 payments and no more. According to court papers, he owed around $20,000 in child support as of my 16th year (1996)

My father remarried a woman who had a (grown) child from a previous relationship, but he and his new wife never had any other children. As far as I know, I am his only child. He had one brother, now living in Germany, who has children, but I'm not sure how many, or any other information about them. As far as I know, they've been in Germany since I was a child.

My father lived in another state, so I only saw him every couple of years or so, in the summertime. He would take me to my great-grandmother's farm and tell me that it would belong to me one day. I was very close to them, closer than to my dad, I'd say.

My father died in 2000, shortly before his 50th birthday. My grandmother and great-grandmother had both passed the year before - 1999.

I was in college at the time of all their deaths, and did not wish to pursue any kind of estate entitlement at that time - I thought my father's wife would handle everything, and I didn't press it, considering she had just been widowed. We were never particularly close, but we had no problems with each other, either. However, I never heard anything more about it except one note not long after his death that she sent me regarding the sale of his truck.

As far as I know, here are the assets that my father had at the time of his death: the house that he and his wife shared. The house that my grandmother lived in (possibly). My great-grandmother's land, home, and belongings (he should have been at least a partial owner of that, with his brother). He most likely also had Veteran's benefits, and possibly SSI/Disability. As of today, I believe his wife still lives in the home that she shared with him, but I have no idea what happened to everything else.

I'm not particularly interested in getting his house, since his wife still lives there, but I am interested in my great-grandmother's land and property. I also don't particularly want my family's land and belongings to be left to his wife's daughter and her children. She's nice and all, but she was an adult when he married her mother, and was not raised by him, so I feel she has no real claim to it.

It's been several years now since he passed, and it's only recently that I've begun to really think about pursuing this information. I'd like to know what, if anything, I may be entitled to, and where is the best place I might go to find out all this information.

posted by somas1 to Law & Government (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What state? And was there a will?
posted by bluedaisy at 9:07 AM on May 11, 2009

You really, really should ask an attorney this question.
posted by pdb at 9:13 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, welcome to my world, where something similar (but infinitely more sleazy) happened in terms of screwed up inheritances. She's definitely going to need an attorney for something like this. If she doesn't want to pursue that right away she might want to at least go down to the relevant probate court and see if she can get a copy of any will/etc that was filed.
posted by at 9:17 AM on May 11, 2009

IANAL. In most states if he had a surviving spouse and no will, the spouse inherits all property, and the benefits are divvied up as survivor benefits. I think the distribution for those is also spousal but I'm only guessing. (It seems logical but I don't know why I expect the feds to excel at logic.)
posted by DarlingBri at 9:24 AM on May 11, 2009

I am not a lawyer, but having recently established estate trusts in both California and Washington, I have had an opportunity to ask what would happen if I did not prepare a trust. As far as I know, legally the surviving spouse inherits everything. So your step-mother would get everything upon the death of your father. If they had died simultaneously then the property would have been distributed according to any will or trust documents. Even if he had a will that gave you everything, I'm not sure it means a lot because the probate court would side with the surviving spouse over adult, estranged children in most cases.

As others said, buy an hour of time with an estate lawyer that is well versed in the laws of the state in which your father died.
posted by csw at 9:25 AM on May 11, 2009

As a data point, my mother died in Oregon without a will, by state law everything she owned was to be divided this way: 50% to her spouse, 50% to her children. The children (we were a mix of adults and minors) then must agree on how to split that 50%. So your friend was likely entitled to something, but will definitely need to consult a lawyer, especially given the amount of time that has passed. We didn't have a lawyer, but basically came to an agreement with our mom's spouse and each other. If an agreement weren't possible, or if the stuff we were fighting over had more monetary value, it might have come to lawyer v lawyer.

Your friend may need to communicate with the stepmom and ask her questions about the properties and belongings to even have enough information to meet with a lawyer. I did end up going to the county and getting copies of deeds and other historical records to make sure that what I was being told was the truth.
posted by JenMarie at 10:20 AM on May 11, 2009

I would contact the probate court in the state(s) where your father and grandparents died. They will be able to tell you how to go about requesting a copy of the will(s), if any were filed. Then you can take the wills, if any, and all the other info that the OP provided in this question to a trusts & estates attorney licensed to practice in the state where the estates were administered. The attorney may also have to do a title search on all the relevant properties, to determine whether or not the OP is entitled to a share of any of those properties.

Also, it's important to note that if there was no will, then certain items won't/might not be included in the OP's father's estate, but an actual attorney will be able to sort that out.

Good luck!
posted by ailouros08 at 10:25 AM on May 11, 2009

In most states if he had a surviving spouse and no will, the spouse inherits all property, and the benefits are divvied up as survivor benefits.

This is completely incorrect.

In most states there is a division between surviving spouse and children in the case of intestacy, with the percentages varying, but similar to what JenMarie describes. The setup will depend on whether the surviving spouse is the parent of the surviving child(ren) and if the surviving spouse has any children of his/her own. And, of course, it will depend on the law of the state in question. However all states that I know of split the estate under intestacy between a surviving spouse and child not of that spouse.

However, at this point, you don't even know if the grandmother and father did die intestate, or if there was a will.

Step one: call the county where the father lived when he died and see if the probate court has done any proceedings around his death.

Step two: call a lawyer.

It sounds like it would be worth it.
posted by miss tea at 10:28 AM on May 11, 2009

There may also be a problem with the statute of limitations. These people passed a long time ago.

One other issue, is there anyway to seek the missing child support. Is that something due you, can it be pursued from the estate, is there a statute of limitations on such claims and if so how long?

An attorney can help you answer these questions.
posted by caddis at 10:57 AM on May 11, 2009

Miss Tea is right on. It really depends on if there was a will or not. Once you discover if there is or isn't a will, find an attorney with experience in probate or non-probate matters for that jurisdiction. In most intestate situations, a wife receives approximately a third to a half of the property of the marriage. In some cases, if it's real estate and can be considered "ancestral estate" then the wife only gets a life estate interest (she gets to live on it, but once she dies, it reverts to someone else). Generally, in an intestate situation, the distribution goes like this:

Spouse will get a % of the estate, either from an elective share, or another mechanism. Then barring any creditors, any surviving children get to have the rest.

It's important to get a move on this, as it's always possible a jurisdiction has some kind of statute of limitations on claims. In my present state, you only get 3 years to challenge a will, for example. Which is why it'd be smart cookies to find an attorney familiar with the jurisdiction where your father's estate is located, as they'll know all the little peculiarities associated with it.

Hope the best for you!

p.s. If there is a will, and you haven't missed the jurisdiction's statute of limitations, you can always try and challenge the will on various grounds (and that's when a good lawyer helps).
posted by Atreides at 11:01 AM on May 11, 2009

Some interesting issues here.

At a minimum it would be worth pulling the probate and/or administration files from the court for all three decedents, as well as the title on the houses and the father's credit and court records (to look for liens and judgments). It's important to consider both child support claim (and the various ways that laws privilege them) at least as carefully as as the friend's status as a putative heir.

With the passage of time and various laws designed to assure finality in these circumstances, the odds aren't high on any theory. Your friend should put whatever lawyer she hires on a carefully restricted budget to make sure that she doesn't pursue the matter beyond the investment it justifies.
posted by MattD at 12:04 PM on May 11, 2009

Also, look carefully into veterans benefits for kids of US military members. Particularly if her father was disabled, she may be eligible for various stipends or mortgage loans. In my case, I was eligible for a $700+ monthly educational stipend until I turned 33 or so.
posted by bendy at 1:54 PM on May 11, 2009

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