Dad’s New Bride: Companion or Gold-Digger?

It's natural to worry about an inheritance when an older parent remarries, even when the new spouse is closer in age than Anna Nicole Smith, 26, was to Howard Marshall, 89, who died a year after they wed. Smith tried for a hefty share of her late husband's estate.

Angela, a middle-aged owner of a small business, heard recently that her 89-year-old father Charles was getting married to Mary, his 78-year-old girlfriend.  Angela’s reaction? While genuinely happy for her dad, she also felt fear, because she was worried that her inheritance was in jeopardy.

A few weeks ago I asked Sandwich Lady readers to send in their stories about aging parents’ remarriages.  A few shared very frank thoughts about their mixed feelings.  It took years for Marilyn, one reader, to come to terms with her dad’s four marriages.  Another reader, VeggieSandwichGeneration, wrote that “There was a new woman in our space and she struggled to let us into what she didn’t realize, or didn’t care, had been our space prior to that.”

“I think in our heart of hearts we all want the best for our parents, just as parents want for their children,” wrote Amy, whose dad married her mother’s best friend. “It is when the things that our parents find to be best for them are different from that picture of the ideal, engrained into us from childhood, that it is difficult to know how to proceed with the new course of things.”

Along with gathering these insights from Sandwich Lady readers I also have spoken informally to some friends and acquaintances whose parents remarried at a late age. One is Angela, who was brave enough to wander into dangerous territory and talk about money if I disguised her name.  I suspect many other midlife children secretly worry about their inheritance  — and feel a lot of shame about it afterwards — when their parents take another spouse late in life.

Angela, who is childless and never married, said that Charles began dating his girlfriend Mary just five months after the death of his wife.  “Dad told me when Mom died that he was going to go downhill,” Angela recalled.  But less than half a year later, he was dating again.

Her octogenarian dad changed from dejected to dashing, and Angela was genuinely happy to see Charles have a new zest for life.  Charles and Mary moved in together, and the couple began traveling and socializing with friends. “I couldn’t have thought of anybody who was more perfect for my dad,” Angela said. “She even was a better companion to him than my mom in some ways.”

But when Charles announced in January he and Mary would be getting married (“I’m afraid of what the neighbors think about us living together,” he confided to his daughter), some unwelcome thoughts began to bubble up in Angela’s mind.  As she put it:  “I really do need an inheritance.  I’ve been single all my life.  Dad knows this and I am hoping he will still take care of me.”

Angela grew even more concerned when she asked her father when he and Mary would tie the knot, and he said, “I don’t know…I have to complete some legal work first.”  She was hoping that he was talking about a pre-nuptial agreement but can’t be sure.  To make matters worse, Charles refused to elaborate.

Charles has never been upfront about his finances, even when he was married to Angela’s mother.  The mother controlled most of the money and didn’t share much information either. “My parents would never discuss money when we were growing up,” Angela recalls.  “We didn’t know if we were poor or rich.  They held their cards so close to the chest.”

Mary has children of her own, as well as property that she acquired during her first marriage.  Angela is guessing that a pre-nup would benefit Mary as well.  But nobody is talking and she can’t be sure.

Many might argue that aging parents have the right to spend all of their money if they so choose, and nobody should rely on an inheritance as a financial lifeboat.  Even a few older people embrace this idea – look at the thousands of bumper stickers that announce, “I’m spending my children’s inheritance.” I remember one acquaintance who once told everyone that “When I die, I want to have just enough money to pay the guy who shovels the last shovel of dirt.”

Yet I can’t help but feel sad for Angela, who has struggled to build something for herself without a husband and was counting on an inheritance.  She is not unlike the aging spouse who gets jettisoned for a trophy wife, but without any divorce laws that provide for her.  I think that Charles should at least share his plans with her so she can know where she stands.

Many midlife people worry about leaving something to their children, especially in an era when young people are having such a hard time amassing wealth of their own.  Estate lawyers get very rich showing us how to preserve as much as our nest egg as possible for our heirs. And I suspect nearly every middle-aged person also wonders how much their parents are leaving them in their will, even if they never bring it up.

Of course, unforeseen circumstances can eat away at an inheritance:  a costly illness, a nursing home stay, tax code changes, a weakened Social Security system that requires that older people draw down more of their own savings just to get by.  And yes, a new spouse can be one of those unknowns as well.  So can an aging parent’s preference to enjoy more of their hard-earned money.

Angela says she is happy that Charles has found love again, and feels a lot of “shame and guilt” when she worries about her inheritance.  Still, she can’t help worrying and Charles’ silence is not helping.

I think that the baby boomers need to start the difficult conversation about inheritances.  We need to share our own estate plans with our kids (indeed, we need to HAVE a plan first..How many of us don’t?)  Aging parents need to be up-front about what their heirs can expect, even if it means being frank about their plans to spend all their money, as is their right.  And all parties should bear in mind that there are no guarantees.

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9 thoughts on “Dad’s New Bride: Companion or Gold-Digger?

  1. I’ve been encouraging mid-life readers to become familiar with Jane Gross, author of the fabulous book A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves and also to check our her Facebook page, where she shares stories about eldercare in our era. Late-life marriages can complicate matters, and Jane Gross has touched on this (there was also an intriguing Modern Life essay about this in the NY Sunday Times a few weeks ago). You are right that inheritance issues need to be discussed openly and frankly. So do all the issues of eldercare. Thanks for helping to raise awareness and for encouraging others to share their stories.

  2. I am strongly on the side of discussing eldercare with my dad and his wife, but not inheritance. Personally, I feel the money he made and has is his own, and he should choose it as he sees fit. If he wants to leave it all to his wife, that’s his decision and I don’t expect a dime from him when he dies (and neither do my brothers). However, I do want to be sure that he and his wife have enough to take care of themselves and their health should (or is it when?) things go awry. I know, because we’ve talked about it, that my dad wants to die at home and my stepmother doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone and would choose to go into a retirement community when my dad dies. Her children are much younger than us, and if she ends up leaving them our dad’s money, than that’s her decision. My dad also owns a summer house and we’ve talked about how that will be dealt with when he dies, and it will stay in our family, but we would certainly welcome our step-siblings there if they choose to come.

    The thing about late-life marriages is that we’re not all one big family. My kids and I call my father’s wife by her first name, not “grandma”, and we refer to her as my dad’s wife, not my stepmother. We don’t think of her kids as our step-brother and sister, they are just X and Y–we babysat them when they were little (my dad married my late mom’s best friend) and invite them to all our family gatherings, and they come to what they want to. We weren’t raised with them in the same house, my dad’s wife isn’t mothering the adults, and so the focus for myself and my brothers is on our father’s well-being and happiness. He’s 75 and in good health, and I’m glad she’s younger than him (17 years younger) to take care of him as he ages. If they spend every dime on themselves, great.

    In my husband’s family, 3 of the 4 siblings have managed their own money well. One sister has lived very well but not saved a dime. She is counting on an inheritance, the other siblings encourage their mom to live as she sees fit. This causes a lot of conflict within the family and makes things quite strained. How can you truly keep your parent’s best interest at heart when you are also worried about your own? The rest of the sister’s family feel she should live within her means and stop counting on an inheritance.

    My parents raised us to be in charge of our own lives and livelihood. I hope my kids will do the same.

    • Amy, some very good points! Bob and I actually had a lively discussion about this over lunch after he read my column. We went back and forth over whether the kids had a “right to know” what was in their parents’ will. We agreed that in our own circumstances, we hope all of our parents will enjoy their money rather than saving it for us. But we wondered how many middle-aged people can’t save for retirement because they are stretched thin, or live really close to the edge because they are banking on an inheritance.

  3. I have an opposite story, but the same situation appears here. My late great-grandmother got married twice in life. Her first husband I never knew him, but I was 15 when she got married again. She was 85 that time. I used to take care of her for having trouble walking. A really bad hip. Anyway, she just got married for a few 4 months, as she got sick and past away. One of her five children almost exploded when her 87 years old husband asked for a ring she said she would give him. I knew the man very little time, but I knew that he wasn’t a bad person. This ring was a plane silver ring, very simple indeed, and the will did show that promise to be true. The thing was that the ring was a gift of her first husband. It must have been a parent-children situation, but if it was in my hands, I would have given the ring to this man. And that happened even with the screaming of my great-grandmothers elder son.

    In the end, her children got most of all the other things (my grandmother got all her photos and some furnitures and I got her diaries that we used to read together) and I never heard of the widower again, because he had a big family to take care of him as well… Still, I never thought that he could be a trouble in the will or something like that, as my great-grandmother really wanted her children to have everything her first late husband gave to her, as she confided to me once… Except for that ring, it seems.

  4. I have a plan: when I die the kid gets it all..

  5. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing it. I really enjoyed reading this. After the loss of a loved one just yesterday, I am currently inundated with requests from vultures for the belongings of our newly deceased family member, as I was the beneficiary of most of her belongings (but not her money). I am wondering about what the “right” way for me to proceed is in many of these conversations, but you’ve reminded me to think, too, of people’s worries, too.

    • So sorry about the death of your loved one, and that you also have to deal with insensitive people during this difficult time. Hope you can find a way to get the space you need before you have to part with the belongings. A friend of mine’s mother-in-law passed away several years ago and her sister-in-law was there with the truck scarcely before the body was cold. Pretty shameless.

      • Shameless, indeed. I actually got a call from a family friend apologizing for being “crass,” but asking if she could have my godmother’s chair. My godmother’s body hadn’t even been removed from her apartment at the time. Awful. But, thanks again for your post. It was good to read today.

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