Dear Moneyist,

I have what I hope is a simple question. My stepmom and father gave me $16,000 from their joint savings days before my dad passed away. She said it was a gift. Now that he has passed, she wants the money back. I paid $2,000 for the funeral.

Also see: I discovered through Ancestry.com that my biological father is someone else — can I claim an inheritance as his heir?

She said her lawyers have said that she must account for this money while his estate goes through probate. She argues that it would be considered “hiding money” by the probate court. Is that true? Do I have to give it back? Should I?

Shocked Daughter-in-law

Dear Shocked,

It could have been a lot worse. She could have given you a cute puppy — and demanded it back. I don’t know what advice your stepmother is acting upon, but I suspect that she never received such a recommendation. Far more likely: Your stepmother is banking on you being stricken with grief by your father’s death and intimated by the suggestion that this is a probate issue.

Was this $16,000 gift instigated by your father? I’m curious as to the motivation, but I’m clear on the result. There is no legal basis for her to ask for this gift back. People do lots of impulsive things after the death of a loved one: argue over wills, make big financial decisions that they come to regret, etc. Perhaps your stepmother is acting out of grief rather than greed.

Also see:We’re in a happier place now!’ My husband wrote a secret will when our marriage was rocky — should I now write one too?

I suggest telling her something supportive and direct along the lines of: “You’ve got no need to worry. I have looked into it and — because you and dad gifted me this money while he was still alive — it was not part of his estate and, as such, does not go through probate. More importantly, how are you doing? Is there anything else I can do to help? I’m here if you need me.”

Here is the Internal Revenue Service’s guidelines on monetary gifts from family members. I hope that helps. In the meantime, be good to yourself. Stuff depreciates. So as well as paying down any debts you may have or buying necessities for your home or upgrading your car, I suggest using that money to take a trip somewhere you have always wanted to go or to study something you’re passionate about.

Experiences and learning, like your father’s love, are things that last forever.

Recommended: ‘What did he do with all the money?’ My dying husband cashed his $700K life insurance and emptied his bank accounts

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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2020-01-18