Who has more legal rights, a spouse or parent?

4 answers | Last updated: Oct 12, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

what rights do I have as a wife when my husband has fallen ill and there is an over-bearing and power-struck mother-in-law that has grabbed all of his important documents and jewelry? She has also gone to my husband's job to try and collect his pay. At a time like this how do I protect my husband and my family?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com 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.

Your best defense in dealing with this difficult personality may be a good offense. That will likely require you to do some legwork to get your facts and documents in order and to be assertive and stand your ground.

Given that your time and energy is probably taken up in attending to your husband's illness, this may all feel like an additional burden. It may be useful to enlist the help of others"”friends, family members, neighbors, specific professionals"”to ease your load where possible.

First, get clear on your rights and entitlements by collecting and reviewing all legal documents that are in place: wills, trusts, insurance beneficiary designations, bank account ownership. It may not be necessary to do anything with this information for now. But knowing what exists and where will make you prepared should your mother-in-law attempt to overstep her bounds in any of these areas.

Then, there's the practical part of dealing with her overbearing personality that may be more difficult. Is there any way to involve her while setting some limits on her behavior? Some people who swing into the "take charge" mode you describe are simply scared or agitated and genuinely want to help in some way. Perhaps you could ask her to cook a meal on a certain day of the week, or walk the dog, or visit your husband at a set time when you are working or need to do errands. Try to be clear about what may be needed"”and what feels mettlesome and unnecessary.

Imposing some structure in your planning"”perhaps establishing a computerized or hard copy schedule"”may help drive home the seriousness of the situation to your mother-in-law. And enlisting others such as willing friends, neighbors, family members, and religious leaders to be around, help out"”and maybe even intervene to keep your mother-in-law more contained may also help dilute the situation so that her actions somehow feel less personal and annoying.

There may also be other visitors to the site who could weigh in with suggestions that have worked for them in dealing with overbearing relatives.

Community Answers

Mecare answered...

The question: "what rights do I have as a wife"..period. Did not answer the question. Did not clearly define "rights". The answer went around in circles like a ferris wheel.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I found the answer above unhelpful. Barbara Kate did not read anonymous' question very well. She stated that the Mother in law TOOK all of the paperwork. So how can she "collect" all of the paperwork when the mother in law has it?

3generations answered...

I am also an attorney. The expert did answer the question, but perhaps didn't go into enough detail. Generally speaking, the mother-in-law doesn't have any rights to the documents/possessions, unless the husband (son) gave her some rights. For example, if she is joint on a bank account, she has the right to access the money in that account. And if she is named executor of his estate, she has a right to a copy of the will. But it will be difficult for the wife to determine any of that, since the MIL swooped in and took the documents.

I would suggest the simplest, most direct route first: ask the MIL to give it all back. Have a friend or family member sit in on the conversation as a witness (and to help diffuse, if necessary). If that doesn't work, a more official third party may be necessary to resolve this situation, such as a family counselor, social worker, mediator, or attorney.