Am I still my father's heir?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 08, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

Inheritance & property question . My father died in 2009 and my stepmother died in Dec 2010. My father had a will stating I would inherit his properties and life insurance, and my stepmother did not have a will. Now my stepmother's nieces and nephews are claiming they are the legal heirs. Who is right?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

To find out what property you are entitled to take, you need to look closely at the documents controlling its final disposition.

To pass along most life insurance, for example, the policyholder will usually name a beneficiary, who will get the proceeds at death rather than having the insurance processed through a will and probate. So for the insurance, you would do well to locate a copy of the policy or contact the insurer to find out whether you were designated in this way as an automatic taker. If your father named your stepmother as the primary beneficiary"”and named you as an alternate"”then the proceeds of the policy would go to her, since she survived him.

As for other property, such as real estate, who is entitled to own the property now depends on how the title was held while your father was alive, which can be a tad harder to parse. For example, if he held the property in joint tenancy with right of survivorship, then it passed automatically to your stepmother at his death. But if he held a clear partial or total ownership interest in the property, you are likely entitled to get it under the terms of his will.

A simple legal principle controls all this: First in time is first in right. That means the law will look at the ownership interests in the order they occur. Your father's will should have been processed and probated first.

If the executor has not yet settled the estate, you might gently ask for information on this. If you are the executor, but unsure about how to proceed, you may want to get some targeted advice from an experienced estate planning attorney to help provide some certainty and to help prevent future family squabbles.