Dear Carolyn: I’ve been happily married to a wonderful man for the last four years. My husband has a teenage son from his previous marriage, but we’ve decided not to have kids of our own.
Last week I was boxing up papers from our office and came upon a printed email from my father-in-law to his financial planner. In the email, my father-in-law asked the financial planner how to ensure that my stepson receives the remainder of my in-laws’ estate after my husband dies. The financial planner suggested a couple of options, one of which was a generation-skipping trust that would pass to my stepson upon my husband’s death, regardless of whether I or my husband pass on first.
I was surprised and incredibly hurt by the question from my father-in-law, since I am younger than my husband and there is a good chance I will outlive him. While I sympathize with his desire to pass something down to his grandson, it seems cruel and unnecessary to do so by leaving me with nothing when I am a widow.
Still, it’s his family’s money and not mine, and I feel guilty for even caring. But I am genuinely scared for my financial future now, and deeply hurt by my in-laws’ coldness. Am I wrong to be upset? Should I ask my husband to talk to them about it?
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Your being upset is understandable. It would be a mistake, though, to stick with those hurt feelings as your only response.
No one wants to be called untrustworthy, which is the message you’re getting from the letter. Your father-in-law (“Phil”) doesn’t trust you to be the one to ensure his grandson inherits his estate. As I said, it’s understandable that this would sting.
But if you were this teenage boy’s mother, how would you feel if his inheritance from Phil went through a stepmother before going to him – if in fact it ever did go to him? You’d stand for that?
I have to think not, no matter how highly you regarded the stepmother’s character.
In fact, it’s such a huge thing to entrust to anyone that not being trusted is – for these purposes as least – not even a personal slight. I can see not wanting to be trusted with this. Leave what’s mine to me, thanks, but don’t put me in charge of anyone else’s share because I don’t need that grief.
Accordingly, the transaction you’ve witnessed here is commonplace. People routinely secure assets for their immediate families because even one variable or third party can leave the intended heir with nothing.
So. Take your moment to be upset, then reframe as needed to see the practical wisdom in what Phil wants to do.
Then go a step further and think pragmatically about your own position here. What will happen if your husband does predecease you? Will you be left with nothing? Will your stepson own your home?
These not only are important questions in their own right, but they’re also (more or less) independent of Phil’s arrangements for your stepson. You and your husband have your own shared lives, and presumably that includes some assets – so you need to discuss how you’ll provide for each other in your wills to ensure neither is left homeless or broke.
Raise it not with, “Hey, why is he getting everything while I get nothing,” but with, “I stumbled across this email and it made me realize we haven’t gotten our own estate plans in order. We need to make sure neither of us is in for a nasty surprise.”
Hi, Carolyn: What do you recommend about meeting the partner’s first wife? We have been together a year, are serious, committed, and secure in our relationship. I will meet his ex-wife this spring at their child’s graduation, but I am not looking forward to it. I’m kind of OK with this step, and he and I have talked about it, but I do have a voice in my head reminding me that, with children and a marriage, they have a bond that I might never have with him. I would appreciate any tips.
With everyone he knows and has ever known, he has a bond you’ll never have with him. There’s no ex-spouse monopoly here.
And you, likewise, will have a bond with him that no one else ever will.
Individual + individual (equal sign) unique pairing. Period. The sooner you own what you have for what it is, inherently and uncorrupted by what-ifs and who-elses – who can, by the way, include parents and sibs and best buddies as well as exes, since all represent his deep history – the better able you will be just to meet any of his people as a fellow traveler as opposed to wrangler of baggage.
So just be friendly and flexible – and be on the margins, please. A graduation is about the grad, so if the spotlight nicks you wherever you happen to stand, graciously step to the side.
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