The Moneyologist: Can I sue my mother for changing my last name?


Dear Moneyologist,

My family has been fragmented for at least the last three generations, creating an elaborate blend of step-everything and relationships that were seldom defined by blood. My deceased grandfather — whom I loved dearly — is not my relative by blood, nor is the so-called father whose name I carry. Suffice it to say our family traditions are fragmented or non-existent.

When my mother divorced and remarried, she and my step-father changed my name and my younger brother’s to match his, creating this collection of five kids where the oldest two had one last name and the younger three had another (my parents had the youngest son together). Over the years, the older two and one of my younger brothers were excluded from our family by my parents — they were literally thrown away.

I dropped out of high school and joined the army at 17, where I remained for the next 25 years. My wife and I have been married 38 years and have done pretty well for ourselves and four kids, residing in a home larger than any in the history of our extended families. I genuinely wanted to help bring things together among my fragmented family and came up with the idea several years ago to invite everyone to our house for Christmas — my parents, my younger (step) brother, his third wife, their children, and another lovely girl from his first marriage.

I envisioned board games, talking in the kitchen, and touch football in the yard. Instead we got isolation, indifference to our home, and an absolute reluctance to follow any team-building suggestions I promoted. My wife watched me try to play the encouraging, happy host to our indifferent guests and became visibly livid. Everyone left a day early, and the period of cold shoulders began — no birthday cards, no calls. I continued to telephone after some six months and, over time, a regular pattern of communication resumed. I thought we had navigated the storm.

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Three years pass and I am at my step-father’s bedside as he slips away, It was traumatic, but the next day it took another turn: My mother informed me that, in their will some two years prior, they had decided to leave my brother the house and that he and I could split “whatever other inheritance was left over.” She added, “That’s OK, right? Your wife said she would never live here,” she insisted. My youngest (step) brother, their natural son would inherit their estate for his family.

After 48 years pretending I was a son as well the truth was clear: I was not a son, and neither I, my wife, nor my children would enjoy a peaceful legacy or inheritance with this family.

I know from reading your column that there is nothing I can do about people’s decisions with their money and, honestly, could not accept a dime if it were offered. But the notion that they took a little boy of 12 and tattooed some stranger’s name on his forehead — watching him pass that name on to his children (even naming his firstborn after the stepfather) — and later tossing him out with his other siblings makes me sad and furious.

On the flip side of all this drama, I’m not walking away empty-handed. I now have an oddly humorous story about how “I once crafted a family reunion in hopes of establishing a Christmas tradition, and got disinherited for my trouble” and a powerful illustration for my kids on what not to do. I now insist that they will each receive their legacy regardless of what choices they make in this life.

And it makes me question: Can I contest the will and possibly sue the estate for the legal fees associated with changing my name and the names of my children and grandchildren back to my original name — a dramatic reset of sorts? Do you think this is possible? I suppose this is tremendously difficult, but I’m just about angry enough to do it. Writing this alone was helpful, though I apologize for the length.


Dear Forrest,

I’m sorry to hear that you tried and failed to bring your family together. It sounds like your parents have had tumultuous relationships with their children and, even though you have organized Christmas and remembered people’s birthdays and been present for your parents, you have not been able to break that pattern. Your mother based her decision on something your wife said or something your mother thinks she said. She may be a very sensitive person, or perhaps someone who finds trouble where there is none. You could always say, “You misunderstood,” or, “That’s not what happened.” But, ultimately, you must abide by her decision.

Life is unfair. As I said to a reader who was unhappy with the size of his inheritance ($10,000, to be exact), try not to define your entire relationship with your parents by the amount that is left to you in their will. As hard as it is to hear, this may not be about you. It may be that your parents have a limited capacity to give and receive love, and they may think that your youngest brother needs a house most of all. I don’t know the details of your respective financial situations, but you say you live comfortably. But the heavy lifting has already been done: You have built your own family without continuing these deep divisions.

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The legal system is harsh when it comes to inheritance. If you weren’t formally adopted by your stepfather, you likely have no standing to contest any aspect of your stepfather’s will or its terms, says Blake Harris, an attorney at Mile High Estate Planning in Denver. But you would still have little recourse, even if he did adopt you. Why? Parents can leave whatever they want to who they want. What’s more, if you were not mentioned in the will, you were technically not disinherited, Harris says. To successfully contest a will, it must be based on a claim that the will failed to fulfill legal requirements for its proper execution or that your stepfather “lacked testamentary capacity,” he adds.

You inherited your last name from your stepfather and, because you will not inherit the family home, you want to retaliate by changing your family’s last name and suing them in court to embarrass them in a public setting. Suing them in court would be costly and a fruitless task, given that your mother used a court order to give you your stepfather’s last name. (This is often done by parents in a blended family, especially when the child’s biological father is no longer around.) “It would cost thousands of dollars to take this case and only a few hundred dollars to change your name,” says Mathew Tully, founding partner of Tully Rinckey law firm in New York.

We are a sum of our actions and this tit-for-tat goes against everything you stand for: The importance of family. Changing your name won’t change who you are. But taking a frivolous court case would.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, regifting, or any tricky money issues relating to family and friends? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyologist.

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