Dear Moneyist,

My children’s father passed away this past August. He had remarried not long before that and settled in Chapel Hill, N.C.

He did have a will, but did not specify individual items to be given to his relatives. His new wife (AKA my children’s stepmother) is having a massive estate sale at the end of August.

In the list of items to be sold are many things our children gifted to him for Father’s Day, Christmas, birthdays, etc. Some still bear their inscription to him.

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She has also listed many items from his younger days that he had promised to his children as well as family heirlooms that should be returned to his family.

Do the grown children have any recourse in obtaining these items prior to the estate sale? The new wife refuses to willingly give his biological children any of the items they’ve asked for.

Former Wife

Dear Former Wife,

While many families fight over money when a parent dies, others fight about the strangest things. I’ve had letters from a daughter who fell out with her mother over a sewing machine. Others relationships have come a cropper over antique furniture and jewelry. Your children are only concerned with items of sentimental value. Family heirlooms, ideally, should stay within the family.

It seems churlish of your children’s stepmother to hold onto these belongings. She may feel like she was not given the right amount of respect as their father’s wife. Or their personalities might have clashed. Or she might just want to do things her way because — after the death of her husband — it’s the last thing she has control over. It’s better not to wander around that haunted house.

Also see: I want to renegotiate my divorce settlement— I pay my wife $3,000 a month, but she still hasn’t gotten a steady job

This is a cautionary tale not to rely on the kindness of relatives. People do all sorts of regrettable things when they’re grieving. They lash out. I know of at least one sordid tale where a stepmother — a public figure — refused to allow her stepson to speak at his father’s funeral. His son sat quietly and respectfully in the pews and, when the moment was right, he made his move. He spoke, anyway.

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If your former husband left his wife everything in his will, your kids are out of luck. If there was no will, they may have some leverage as the state’s laws take precedence. Gifts, inheritance and assets brought into the marriage are separate property. In some states, the spouse receives one-half of that if there is one child or one-third of the separate property if there is more than one child.

Failing that, your children could attend the estate sale, or have a friends attend for them and bid over the phone. It may be an undignified way to retrieve these items, but it would be a great story to tell their children. In fact, bring as many friends as you can, use GoFundMe to raise funds and tell the story of your children’s father and their gifts, and their churlish stepmother. Buy, buy, buy.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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