Q: We’ve been told that my mother-in-law has a simple will that splits everything between her three children – my husband and his two siblings. What will happen to my husband’s inheritance if he predeceases his mother? As his surviving spouse, would I be entitled to his share of her estate? If her will doesn't make this clear, can it be challenged, since my husband and I are the only ones who are there for her? Also, when adding up the final value of her estate, does it include everything she owned, including jewelry, furs, furniture, and bank accounts? My husband says his sister will get all the jewelry and furs, and he and his brother will split the proceeds from the sale of the house. Do we have a right to see a copy of the will? -- MA, via email
A: Nobody has a right to see your mother-in-law's will -- let alone to challenge it -- until after her death. And as her daughter-in-law, you are entitled only to what she chooses to leave you. If your husband predeceases her, you won't inherit his share of his mother’s estate unless her will says so.
Clearly, you feel morally entitled to a generous legacy. But in-laws have no legal entitlement to inherit.
Among other things, this means you cannot challenge the will. You can only challenge a will if 1) you would be legally entitled to inherit if there were no will; or 2) you were named in the decedent's previous will, but disinherited in this one.
Besides, even a person who meets the legal requirements to challenge a will cannot get it overturned merely on the grounds that it's unfair.
Legally speaking, unfairness doesn’t matter.
To overturn a will, you have to convince a court that at least one of the following occurred:
The will was
improperly executed. (It wasn't signed by witnesses, for example.) The testator lacked the mental competence to know what
she was doing. (She disinherited her child because she didn't remember that she had a child.) She signed it as a result of fraud. (She didn't know it was her will, she thought she was signing an insurance policy.) She signed it under undue influence or under duress. (She disinherited her child after being persistently lied to about his character, for example, or after being told her caregiver would abandon her unless she did so.)
Believe me, none of these things is easy
Yes, a person's estate consists of everything he or she owned -- literally everything, including the loose change on the bedside table.
So much for the law. Now let's talk about the emotional subtext of your letter.
It sounds as if you feel that your mother-in-law takes your role as her caregiver for granted.
Her plan to leave her furs and jewelry to her daughter is natural enough; but under the circumstances you've described, it's also natural that you feel slighted. You understandably want her to acknowledge your importance in her life.
You and your husband should find a tactful way to make this clear to her.
For example, he might tell her how much you would one day value a personal bequest, like a favorite piece of jewelry, in acknowledgment of your special relationship with her.
But be warned: There is no surer way to destroy your prospects of such a bequest than to imply that you deserve a bigger share of her assets than her own children when she dies.