The Moneyist: My father died from COVID-19, and left no will. My stepmother threatened to sell our family heirlooms — unless we sign over our claim to his estate. What can we do?

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Dear Moneyist,

My dad passed away from COVID-19 in April 2020. He was a first responder at a walk-in clinic, and was in great health with no underlying health conditions. His death is still a shock to me as he and I were very close.

My sister, our stepmother of five years, her son and I are left behind. My father did not leave a will. It has been over two months, and we have now just received financial information regarding our dad’s estate.

My stepmother hired a lawyer who wants us to sign papers to say she gets everything (our family’s money, plus his house and car) and my sister and I basically get nothing (just enough to cover one semester of college).

She originally agreed to split everything evenly, and now she is denying any mention of that. She claims she wants all of this to be “fair” and the court system is “fair” when she knows none of this is respectable.

She said if we don’t sign our rights over, she will put everything through probate, including memorable items like family heirlooms, clothes, pictures or anything she possibly could. What should our next move be?

Feeling Trapped

Dear Trapped,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences. I’m sorry you lost your father to COVID-19. Losing a family member when it’s so difficult to make hospital visits during a pandemic is especially difficult. I am assuming that your father was a good man and a trusting soul who would want you to have your share of his estate under the law, and also regain ownership of mementoes that you hold so dear.

Onto the unpleasant dilemma facing you and your sibling: Your father’s widow is making a pretty brazen bet, and it’s one that boldly assumes you do not know your rights. During this emotionally taxing and grief-stricken time, she and her lawyer are relying on you making a hasty decision, and signing on the dotted line. My first and last piece of advice: Don’t do it.

This column is always about money and it’s never about money. Often times, our most regretful financial decisions are made based on impulse, fatigue, resentment, anger and, yes, fear.

— The Moneyist

This column is always about money and it’s never about money. We are emotional animals and, often times, our most regretful financial decisions are made based on impulse, fatigue, resentment, anger and, yes, fear. Don’t make those mistakes today. The tactics employed by your stepmother, especially coming so close to the death of a beloved family member, too often work.

However, your stepmother has far fewer cards to play than she would like you to believe. Take New York: Attorneys Price Benowitz LLP outlines intestacy law there thus: “If there is a spouse and no children, the spouse receives 100% of the estate. If there is a spouse and children, the spouse receives $50,000 plus half of the balance of the estate. The children inherit everything else.”

Also see: My wife and I bailed out our son with his mortgage and car payments, and set up 529s for his kids — yet we have the daughter-in-law from hell

There are many state-level variations on that inheritance structure for those who die intestate or without a will. Seek legal counsel and find out how intestate law plays out in your state. You should waste no time in contesting or preempting any action taken by your stepmother. You can petition the probate court to remove your stepmother as administrator of your father’s estate.

Families have come a cropper over far less than this. This daughter fell out with her mother over a sewing machine. Should these family heirlooms remain in your stepmother’s possession after the estate is divided, you could — as a last resort — attend the estate sale, or have a friends attend for you and bid over the phone. It may be undignified, but it would be a story to tell your children.

Her son is not a legal heir to your father’s estate. He does not figure in the equation. It is true that regaining ownership of family heirlooms is difficult without a will, but you have a better chance ordering the court to freeze your late father’s assets, using the full weight of the legal process to put your faith in the hands of the courts rather than in the hands of your stepmother.

Your stepmother is an unreliable narrator. The time has come to find a lawyer you can trust.

Also see: ‘Nothing is ever his fault, everyone is out to get him.’ Our brother inherited our late mother’s home and it was repossessed. He’s now in prison — do I send him money?

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.