Dear Len & Rosie,
My father died three weeks ago. He spent a lifetime saving money. He was married three times and had four children. He was also married to his third wife when he died. She says there is a will (although I think that there may be a trust) but she will not give me any information at all until she has a lawyer read it and explain it to her. She says she did not like the lawyer who prepared these original documents for my father. I’m worried about her stealing my inheritance.
If your father died with a will, and his third wife has it, she can’t keep it to herself. Probate Code section 8200 requires her to either file for probate or deliver the original will to the Superior Court in the county where your father resided on his death. If she’s not named as executor, she also has to mail a copy to the person named as executor in the will. She has thirty days from your father’s death to do this. If she doesn’t, you could petition the court to order her to cough up the will.
If there is a trust, it’s different. The successor trustee, whoever that is, is supposed to notify all of the beneficiaries and your father’s natural heirs (his children) of the existence of the trust within sixty days of his death under Probate Code section 16061.7. The notice also informs you of your right to a copy of the trust document. This only applies, however, if the trust became irrevocable as a result of your father’s death. If he and Wife #3 made a trust together that gave her the right to amend or revoke it after his death, then she’s not obligated to give you a copy.
It is important for you to understand that regardless of what your father’s will or trust says, his wife will inherit anything he owns in joint tenancy with her, and any accounts for which he named her as a beneficiary.
So what do you do now? First, get some information. You can obtain a copy of the current vesting deed (the last recorded deed in the chain of title) to your father’s home from either the County Recorder in the county where the property is located, or from a title insurance company. If there’s a trust, the deed should show that the property is in his name, or in his and his wife’s names, as trustees of the trust. If the deed is in joint tenancy with her, then it’s her home and there’s probably nothing you can do about it.
If the home is in your father’s name alone, then it’s subject to probate, which is good news for you, because your stepmother can’t transfer title without a court order, and you’re entitled to notice of any probate or spousal property petition she files in the probate court.
If another month passes, and she still won’t tell you anything, see a lawyer and have him or her write a vaguely threatening letter spelling out her responsibilities. It’s likely to be enough to get her into the office of an attorney who can make sure she does everything right.
Len & Rosie
Dear Len & Rosie,