Help! My Wealthy Biological Father Hardly Left Me Anything When He Died.

Advice on manners and morals.
April 7 2014 2:59 PM

Weak Will

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on a wealthy, negligent father’s skimpy bequest.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Challenge a Will of the Father That Never Raised Me?: I never met my biological father and had no relationship with him. He had his own family. My mother loved me and raised me entirely on her own, in sometimes very difficult financial circumstances. My biological father died a few weeks ago. When he died, he left a will. That will leaves me with a small portion of his estate (about 1 percent or 2 percent). He left his other son, my half-brother, whom I've also never met, with the majority of the estate (millions of dollars). Should I challenge this will in court? I don't like the idea of litigating the will—it makes me uncomfortable and confused. A proportional share of the estate would radically change my life (student debts, public service job). But does this man, who gave me nothing, owe me anything more in his will? Is the ignored child a chump for not fighting the will?

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A: I wish when your father was alive that your mother had asserted your rights more forcefully. A paternity test would have been a start. That would have established court-ordered recognition of you as his child and required him to provide financial support for raising you. Your mother, perhaps in a misguided attempt to protect the prestige of a wealthy man, allowed you both to hide in the penurious shadows. It's long past time your father's true character was revealed. It's one thing to have had an affair and an out-of-wedlock child; it's another to pretend that child doesn't exist. But your father left you an interesting wedge with that tiny inheritance. This bequest must have raised confusion in his family: Just who is this young woman we've never heard of? The questions you are asking are legal and psychological. So first, take care of the legal end. If you want to proceed with a challenge to the will, you need to pay out of your own pocket for an estate attorney to look into this. At the least, an initial consultation seems most worthwhile. It could be—and I hope it would be—that once the news of your existence and your possible challenge to the will is announced, your half brother could be persuaded that settling a substantial sum on you would be preferable to the scandal of fighting this out in court. Maybe he will have a more magnanimous heart than his father and want to know who you are. But even if he doesn't, you shouldn't inherit from your mother a sense of shame and intimidation. It's time for you to see if you can get what should rightly be yours.

Q. Anti-Vaxxer and Child's Illness: A friend's young daughter has recently had a case of mumps and is suffering terribly from a fairly common pancreatitis complication, swollen, painful tummy, vomiting, etc. She's getting medical help from her pediatrician, so the child will (should?) recover with no permanent problems, but I so want to slap this woman up side the head with a stack of science. How do I not do this? How do I avoid essentially saying, "I told you so!"? In this case, it's not religiously based, the children are otherwise healthy and well cared for; she has just bought into the anti-vaxxer movement so tenaciously that she's immune to reason. 

A: These benighted anti-vaxxers are endangering all of us, especially other children. "Community immunity"—the protection that is conferred on everyone when enough people are immunized—is undermined when the percentage of the vaccinated population drops. Your confused friend is lucky her daughter didn't suffer from one of the more serious side effect of mumps, like deafness. I understand she seems immune herself to reason, but I think it's worth it to gently broach this subject. Tell her you're so sorry about her daughter's complications, then say you hope she reconsiders her ban on vaccination against other childhood illnesses. Explain that it would be awful to see her lovely daughter permanently damaged from some other disease that's so easily prevented.

Q. Re: Estate is rightly hers?: I feel for the person who wrote the comment, but how is part of her biological father's estate rightly hers? The estate rightly belong to whoever the deceased wanted it to go to.

A: If she is indeed the man's biological child and he knew it and never paid child support, that's a long overdue debt. She may not have a case, or depending on the state laws she might. This is something for a lawyer to pursue. But Dad was very rich and possibly prominent. The family might conclude quietly writing a check just to continue to keep her existence quiet is worth it.

Q. Re: Heir: Why the assumption that the OP is female? As stated: "He left his other son, my half-brother" gives the impression that that the OP is male. Also the assumption that no child support was ever provided—this is not clarified either way, so why assume that none was provided? Seems to me if the father was a "prominent figure" he would have provided child support to keep the affair on the down low.

A: Ah, here's the weekly "Where's Waldo" of my reading incomprehension. You're right, the letter writer is a son, and my assumption came from the ether. I think I'm more justified in assuming there was virtually no child support because the writer said his mother raised him alone in straitened circumstances. The letter writer never even met the man. A wealthy father would have had to provide a decent amount of support had the courts gotten involved.

Q. Gay Relations: My parents are very conservative. They live a state where gay marriage is banned. I legally wed my partner in another state and haven't been to my hometown in several years. I would like to take a family trip with my spouse and our child to show them where I grew up as neither has been to that part of the country. However my parents are against it. They don't want people in their small town to know I'm gay. My question is how much do I owe them? They are my parents, but how long do I have to obey them? I feel like they are ashamed.

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