There once was a man who married a woman much younger than him. They were married just one year when he died. Within days of his funeral, his grieving widow had a dumpster parked outside their home and she threw into it all the china, silverware and mementos associated with the man's first wife and children. The problem was, the children of that marriage were still very much alive and would have wanted some of it.
"There was nothing in the estate documents that said, 'I leave all my heirlooms to my children.' And there was a daughter who would have loved to have had the china," says Carol O'Neill, vice president in the wealth management group at Mechanics Bank in Walnut Creek, Calif. "She got her piece. The children got their piece. But it was the personal property I remember so vividly."
There's nothing that brings contention to the execution of a will like a second marriage. Sometimes second spouses take money for themselves and their own kids at the expense of their spouse's first children. Sometimes, it's the first spouse's children who go through all kinds of machinations to make sure their stepmother or stepfather, and their kids, get nothing from the estate.
"Second marriages are a very common area of discord," says George Meng, an estate attorney based in Upper Marlboro, Md.
Meng says the common scenario is that the husband has, say, three kids from his first marriage. He then gets divorced and remarries someone with whom he has no children. He'll put a large portion of his estate into a trust that generates income off of which his second wife will live until she passes. The assets inside the trust will then go to the children from his first marriage.
But life is never that simple. Sometimes the second wife didn't get along with the first wife's children, or the children don't believe the second wife should get anything from their father's estate. And the battles over the estate begin.
"Sometimes this stuff gets to the point where there are actually physical threats or violence," Meng says.
Estate planning professionals agree on one thing: Second marriages are one of the most challenging, confrontational, emotional situations they have to deal with, and the less planning done before the first spouse dies, the worse the situation will be.
Take the husband who leaves everything to his second wife because she says she would make sure his children were taken care of, and his wife simply reneges.
"She says the heck with this, I can do what I want, and she leaves everything to her own kids. That happens repeatedly," says Patti Spencer, an estate attorney based in Lancaster, Pa. "The children have absolutely no recourse, and that's very hard for them to swallow."
Peggy Hoyt of Hoyt & Bryan LLC, family wealth and legacy counselors based in Oviedo, Fla., says she had one client who litigated against her stepmother for years because the stepmother was named as the successor trustee, and the woman wouldn't share any of the money with her stepchildren. She paid it all out to herself.
"I think it's more common than most people realize," Hoyt says.
While trusts are hugely popular and are great estate-planning tools, they're not foolproof, Hoyt says.
"Unlike wills, they require no court supervision. So where there's no formal court supervision, there can be a lot of abuse," she says.
As in a divorce, the battles that ensue when an estate plan is challenged can whittle an inheritance away to nothing, as the family is forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. To avoid that, estate planners say clients should be very specific about where they want their assets to travel after they die. And if possible, place those assets there themselves, so there's no question about their intent.
"Sharing the estate plan with all of the beneficiaries is something I always advise. You will find very quickly if they approve or disapprove, and you can make the adjustments," says Dan Walker, president of Farmers and Merchants Bank in Long Beach, Calif.