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.