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Can My Stepchildren Inherit From My Estate?

Recently a California appeals court faced an unusual situation. A woman wanted to reopen her late husband’s estate nearly 25 years after his death. The widow claimed there was a “clerical error” in the original probate court order that led to the unintentional omission of her children from a prior marriage—that is, her husband’s stepchildren—from inheriting part of his estate.

Under the husband’s will certain property, notably three pieces of real estate, was placed with the wife in trust. As long as the wife remains alive, she receives all of the income from the trust property. Upon her death, according to the will, “the trust estate would be distributed in equal shares to each of decedent’s children then living and each group of issue of a deceased child.”

The wife served as personal representative of her husband’s estate. She apparently did not retain a probate lawyer to assist her. In 1992, she filed a petition to approve the distribution of estate property according to the terms of the will. The final order approved by the probate judge only included the husband’s children as “children” entitled to inherit under the will. But as it turned out, there was language in the will that included the wife’s children, the husband’s stepchildren, as intended beneficiaries of the trust.

For some reason, the wife did not attempt to correct this mistake until 2014, more than 22 years after the probate court approved the distribution of the estate. She nevertheless convinced a judge to treat her mistake as a “clerical error” by the court and amend the definition of “children” in the 1992 distribution order as including stepchildren. One of the husband’s own children objected to this and appealed.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, reversed the lower court’s decision. The appeals court noted there was no evidence that this was a clerical error on the part of the original probate court. Indeed, the judge signed the exact order proposed by the widow in her capacity as personal representative. Even if that order did not reflect the husband’s true intent, as stated in his will, the Fifth District said it was too late to correct the wife’s original mistake.

California Law Generally Excludes Stepchildren From Inheriting

Many people may treat their spouse’s children from prior relationships as their own. There is nothing unusual about naming stepchildren as beneficiaries of a will or trust. But it is important to note that California law does not automatically treat children and stepchildren the same. If you die without a will, California intestacy law only treats your biological or legally adopted children as heirs. A stepchild will only be included in the distribution of an intestate estate if the stepparent and stepchild had a continuous relationship beginning during the stepchild’s minority and there is “clear and convincing evidence” the stepparent would have adopted the stepchild “but for a legal barrier.”

Of course, the best way to avoid intestacy law is to leave a will making your wishes clear. Unfortunately, as the case above illustrates, writing a will is just one part of the process. It is important your spouse or eventual executor works with an experienced California estate planning attorney who can ensure there are no “clerical errors” that might defeat your intentions. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you would like to speak with someone about your estate planning needs.

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