Dear Prudence

Help! I’m Suing My Mother and Brother Over Trying to Fake My Father’s Will.

I cannot believe the scheme they tried to pull on me.

An illustration of a will next to a woman crying.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by 13ree_design/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Deep Art/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

My mom and dad were immigrants from an Eastern European country. We have never been a happy family. I believe my father was bipolar and prone to rages, and I believe that my mom has narcissistic personality disorder. They had a terrible marriage, and I basically fled my hometown after I finished school. My mother never accepted the fact that I permanently moved to a different state and acted like I abandoned her.

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Several years ago, my brother, who I trusted implicitly and considered one of my closest friends, stabbed me in the back quite terribly (think conduct just short of blackmail), and we had a bad falling out. My mom completely and very hurtfully took his side, and they began to triangulate against me and ostracize me from my extended family. Despite ongoing verbal and emotional abuse by them (i.e. making up lies about me, my husband, the state of our marriage, calling me names, etc.), I never cut them off because they were the gatekeepers to my father, who I loved and was dying of Alzheimer’s. During this time, I noticed my brother making odd and out of context comments about inheritance. They even accused my (well-off) husband of scheming to get their inheritance. My parents were both professionals and saved well. There’s more than enough to go around, and I found the such comments to be very disconcerting.

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Last fall, my father passed away, which was very painful. My parents owned a significant amount of property in their home country. By operation of law in that country, we all—my mom, my brother, and me—inherited everything by thirds. Several weeks ago, I found out that my mom and brother tried to probate what I believe to be a phony will by my father in this foreign country! Even though my parents have been transparent about their U.S. estate plan, I have never heard of a will disposing of their foreign assets before. Based on my dad’s “will,” they asked me to sign over my inheritance share to my mother. I was ready to do that if those were my dad’s wishes but, before doing so, I asked to see the will. It was entirely in my mom’s very distinctive handwriting, and it was signed by witnesses two days after the will was signed (i.e., not witnessed at all). I started comparing the signature on the “will” to authentic signatures of my dad’s, and there are definite differences, prompting me to hire a handwriting expert. After I got an attorney involved in their home country, there were all kinds of other red flags that are too detailed to go into here. I even found out that, on my dad’s death certificate in this foreign country, my mom improperly listed herself as my dad’s only surviving heir (not true, and she was made to go back and fix it). Suffice it to say, every rock I uncover convinces me further that they prepared a fake will to steal my inheritance. Their attorney in the probate proceedings even mysteriously withdrew, even though my mom and brother were satisfied with his representation. As an attorney myself, I can tell you that this oftentimes indicates an ethical dilemma with the client.

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This is criminal. I believe that my mom was trying to steal my inheritance share to give everything to my brother, or to cherry pick the best parts for him. During my dad’s decline, she redistributed their American assets to give my brother a lot more, so the writing was on the wall. I’m so hurt, betrayed, and beyond all else ANGRY. I am tempted to report them to the police, but I don’t want to send my 79-year-old widowed mother to jail (and I don’t think my father would have wanted that). I am completely done with them, and I am ready to start my life fresh without them. Am I justified to cut them both off completely? I am in disbelief as to how any mother could do this to her own daughter. I don’t see how this relationship can ever be saved, particularly once this turns into litigation in that foreign country. (And, yes, I have already been in counseling for years based on my previous childhood trauma.)

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— Ain’t No Water in That Maternal Well

Dear Maternal Well,

It would appear that cutting them off is the prudent and fair thing to do. In fact, it seems like what they’ve been preparing to do with you as well. So, while you’ve given them a lot of leeway and are extending grace to your mother in the form of not prosecuting, I think you’re beyond the point of working out your disagreement in conversation. There’s a lot of premeditation in evidence here, and it’s odd and seems sinister. Unfortunately, inheritance brings out the absolute worst in many people (the letters to Dear Prudence bear that out every week), and we rarely get answers about why. I suspect that there’s a part of you that is really hungry for answers or accountability or something that will explain this betrayal. I would advise you, as best you can, to release that need. It will probably take years. But it’s possible.

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Start with cutting them off. If you desire—and if it doesn’t interfere with your litigation—write them a letter simply and clearly stating your intentions to end your relationship. You don’t need to wait for a response or engage in a back and forth. You also don’t need to entertain questions or input from other family members, which you are sure to get. This is about the injury in your relationship with your mother and with your brother. No one else is involved. Again, you probably won’t get the resolution you want, but you can get some measure of peace by allowing yourself to walk away.

Dear Prudence,

Several decades ago, one of my relatives, “Tammy,” moved across the country. She does her best to make several cross-country trips each year (except during COVID, of course) to visit those of us who stayed “back home.” During those trips, it is generally her expectation that we will host and transport her from one place to another because she is making a significant outlay for a round-trip plane ticket. Because I know how much my family enjoys seeing Tammy, and because I enjoy seeing Tammy, and because I am the closest person to a major airport, I am often called to do much of the hosting and transporting. We are talking hundreds of miles and hundreds of dollars each trip in addition to an outlay of my own time, the offering of my space, and the work that I do helping to coordinate logistics.

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Tammy had planned a significant visit this spring that happened to fall in the midst of a very busy, very stressful time for me. I had been feeling a lot of anxiety about all the logistics involved in this visit, which included having to shuttle Tammy between several sets of relatives and to host her in my home. So, in a boundary-setting first, I blew the whole thing up: I called everyone and said that I wasn’t going to be available. As a result of this decision, Tammy ended up having to cancel her entire trip.

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Now, she has rescheduled for August. I won’t be doing as much shuttling and hosting, due in part to some additional boundaries I set. But I’m struggling with conflicting feelings: wanting to see Tammy on the one hand (and wanting to help facilitate her visits to other relatives, especially the ones who are unable to fly out to see her in her home) and feeling totally and completely taken advantage of (my time, my travel, my money, my home). How can I talk to her about this, and how can I best advocate for myself, without causing a permanent rift in our family?

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— Host with the Least

Dear Host with the Least,

An arrangement that worked for everyone—or seemed to work for everyone—decades ago, is going to need some refinement as the years go on. But it’s rarely the people for whom it’s still working who are going to make the changes. Your needs have changed, your life continues to change, and it’s right that you say it. Tell Tammy that you love having her visit but that you need her help to change the way it’s done. (It seems like one obvious thing to do, given all the shuttling, is to get a rental car, which either you all could split or she could pay for.) You can explain as much as you like about the way your needs have changed, or you can simply let her know that it’s just gotten harder for you to manage facilitating her visits. Ask her if she will work with other members of the family to work out some of her arrangements going forward. She may not realize what a burden it’s become for you and so telling her, in a kind way, is going to be as helpful for her as it is for you.

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The tricky thing for you and your family going forward is breaking old habits. Everyone is stuck in a rut where you’re the point person and they don’t have to think as much about logistics. As other people take on responsibility with the upcoming August trip, use it as an opportunity to talk about how future trips can be shared or even completely taken off of your plate. Make it a group conversation, one where you’re not the person figuring out the details at the end of the day. You may get some resistance, but remind your family that you all want to see Tammy and that the easiest way for that to happen is not for them to assume you’re going to suck it up, but for everyone to pitch in together.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie

Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here.

Dear Prudence,

I’ve never had a successful romantic relationship, and I feel like there’s something wrong with me. Every guy I’ve been into and enjoyed going out with has either ghosted me or sent the “I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you, but…” text by the third or fourth date. I’ve gone out with probably six guys in as many months, and I usually think it’s going well until it’s just not. I understand I’m not that much of a catch —I’m not that attractive and I’m already not an interesting conversationalist on top of how anxious I can get on dates—and I’m gay, so I know mathematically there’s just less options, but I just don’t know what’s wrong with me or how to fix it.

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— What Am I Doing Wrong?

Dear What Am I Doing Wrong,

I know from years of unsuccessful dates and three-date “breakups” that the most annoying thing to hear is “it’s really not you.” So I won’t say that. I will strongly imply it, but I won’t say it.
Dating only seems easy in retrospect. Kismet is a lot more magical with a backwards glance. It may seem like it should be easier, or would be easier if you were somehow different, but there’s little evidence of that. You’re experiencing something that most people—regardless of gender, orientation, or age—experience: the daunting prospect of finding someone who is at the right place in their life and in the universe for where you are in your life. This is an age-old struggle; Jane Austen had her characters pressed about this. And it’s only gotten more complicated as the internet introduces a smorgasbord of potential, often without any actual opportunity.

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So what do you do? First, see if you can change the narrative. You write that you’re not that attractive nor an interesting conversationalist; I worry you’re telling yourself a story that isn’t helping you and may be undercutting your good qualities in the eyes of others. Focus, if you can, on what might draw people to you, and, more importantly, on what you like about yourself. I’ve found that, often, people find better people to date while doing things that they enjoy—leisure activities, rec sports, book clubs, etc.—and I wonder what those things are in your life. I imagine that you have interesting things to say about the activities and subjects that most fascinate you. It’s less about making yourself a catch for some nameless person and more about finding a way to be comfortable and happy in your skin, which will make the ups and downs of dating easier to deal with.

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Dear Prudence,

I’ve realized that my friends just aren’t happy for me. My education is objectively more impressive than most, and I’d always known that some of my friends have been a bit jealous, but I thought they had grown out of it. I’ve had several rough years bouncing between jobs because I didn’t like what I thought I did. I’d made some small steps towards different businesses. About six months ago, I finally got serious about my business prospects. My business has been much more successful than I expected so early. I’ve suddenly become financially stable and just booked my last trip on my travel bucket list. My friend “Claire” has barely made a dent in her bucket list. She was visibly upset when I mentioned this. She usually holds back her jealousy to just a quick look that only I seem to be able to notice. She was noticeably cold to me the rest of the night.

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I know you would probably tell me to get better friends, but I’m starting to wonder if there are actually people out there who will be happy for me. It took me an embarrassingly long time for me to realize that most people in my life are more jealous than happy for others. My parents were those happy-type people and actively tried to bring out the best in others. Because I grew up with those parents, I just didn’t think the people in my life weren’t happy for me. So my question is, are most people jealous friends? Where do I find the non-jealous people that are like-minded and have similar interests? Is there some kind of trick to figuring out who these people are and who they aren’t without getting to know them well?

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— Jealous Friends

Dear Jealous Friends,

The thing with jealousy is that it’s usually much more contextual than it is tied to personality. Sure, some people are prone to jealousy and envy and see what they don’t have anywhere they look. But more often than not, we find ourselves envious of a classmate who does well but not envious of a sibling, or something like that. So, I wonder, in the case with Claire, if this can be partially attributed to context. The circumstances of your life changed quickly, which probably changed the dynamics of your relationship and was hard for her to navigate. You say that she got upset when you mentioned she hasn’t made a dent on her bucket list. This sounds less like envy to me and more like someone who feels their friend is poking at a sore spot. Is it helpful to Claire to remind her that she has a ways to go? Is this kind of coaching part of your friendship? I’m saying maybe it’s envy or maybe she’s just annoyed at you. Are there other things that you can talk about? Some of what you’re sensing from her may be coming from the fact that your success came quickly and unexpectedly and Claire just isn’t in the same position, so unless she’s asking for your advice on how to get there, maybe you want to find new topics of conversation.

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Reading between the lines, it sounds like you want people who have a lifestyle that matches the lifestyle that you now have. I’d hazard a guess that your search for non-jealous people is also tied to a desire for people who aren’t put off by your sense of status. I think you should ask yourself what being “happy for you” looks like. It may look like friendships where you can talk about money and achievement and receive the kind of support you’re looking for. Or it may look like friendships where it doesn’t come up very much at all.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I couldn’t help but wonder if the common denominator had more to do with the issue than they might have thought.”

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R. Eric Thomas and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a junior in college, and am an only child. My mom and I talk regularly, almost every day—it was just the two of us for most of my life, so we’re closer than most of my friends are to their parents. Before she married my father, my mom’s first husband, a Marine, was killed in combat. She was married to my father for five years until he died of a heart attack when I was 4. However, he was not only 10 years her senior (she had me at 38) and overweight but had a family history of heart issues—his doctors said it was unlikely but not unexpected. Three years ago, she remarried to a man who she had dated for the past two years. He was an avid motorcyclist, and rode almost everywhere, but it was still a horrible shock when we learned he’d been killed in an accident. It’s been a year since his death, and my mother has sunk into … not depression, but a conviction that she is a “black widow.”

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A male acquaintance of hers recently reached out and asked if she wanted to have a picnic with her; she cried to me that she “had” to turn him down. Even though she is still grieving, she refuses to get close to him—just as a friend—because “one day even that could kill him.” I’m not only missing my stepfather, but I’m also concerned for my mother. Other family members have made comments about her husband’s passing away. My paternal grandmother even said that while some women are serial brides, my mother “is becoming a serial widow.” I currently have to placate my mother, defend her to the families of both my stepfather and my father, and also work an internship and a job. Please give me some advice on how to balance all of this! I don’t believe for a second that my mother is a cursed widow, but everyone in my life (including her!) believes otherwise.

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— Not the Spider’s Daughter

Dear Not the Spider’s Daughter,

Grief defies sense and logic and can be as random and capricious as life and death themselves. So, it makes sense that your mother is holding on to this belief about herself, even though her three deceased husbands are simply a coincidence. That’s a cold comfort, of course.
In fact, it may be easier, at this stage of grief, to assign some kind of reasoning to these events. Statistical anomaly seems almost crueler. So, you may have to gently push back with your mom but let her work through this on her own for a bit. Hopefully, she’s a part of a grief support group or seeing a therapist. If not, that’s something you can actively help with right now that will make a difference. Talking to other people about her emotions and the simple facts of life that have led to this black widow train of thought will help right-size what’s going on for her. If you have the capacity, you’ll also want to set a boundary with your extended family. They’re going through their own grief process, but they don’t need to burden you with this black widow commentary, and it’s fair for you to say so. Tell them that you won’t hear any more of it. You mother doesn’t have control over life and death and they know it. And if your mother could control those forces, don’t they think that she’d have chosen life? They may still have these conversations on their own, but they need to be reminded—kindly but forcefully—that it’s hurtful to both of you and puts you in a hard position.

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Lastly, make some space for your own grief process. If there are resources you can take advantage of, be it an individual therapist or a group, please do. You are a great support to your mother, but often we forget that a crucial part of supporting others is taking care of ourselves. If this is all too much to balance, take a step back, perhaps by holding your extended family at arm’s length for a bit and focusing on your healing and your mother’s healing, irrespective of her next relationship.

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Dear Prudence,

My wife and I are at a crossroads. This is a second marriage for us both. All our children are grown. She was divorced and I was widowed. We both agreed to keep our previous assets out of our marriage—I have my business and she has her house (which we live in). We share all other expenses and savings equally. The problem is with her adult daughter “Lynsey.” She and her husband don’t make much money and are being squeezed by surging rent prices. Lynsey also wants a child but can’t afford IVF. My problem with Lynsey is that she has refused all reasonable offers of help (moving back home, us paying for career education or moving her to a cheaper area), and she whines about my children. Their grandparents (on my late wife’s side; they are very wealthy and she was an only child) have been very generous to them. They all have homes, good careers, and no debt. They enjoy the company of my wife, but have only a superficial relationship with her kids other than the occasional holiday (which my oldest son usually pays for). Lynsey can’t seem to get it through her head that she is not entitled to anything from my side of the family, let alone my dead wife’s family.

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At my wife’s birthday, there was a discussion about the costs of remodeling and DIY. My daughter was talking about using reclaimed cabinets and tiles in her second bathroom, and Lynsey told her to shut up and stop playing as if she was actually poor instead of a spoiled little rich girl. A fight broke out  where Lynsey wouldn’t let up, and since she was staying with us, my children left. Lynsey refuses to apologize, and none of my children want to be around her anymore. Neither do I. I was willing to take on the lion’s share in the costs of helping Lynsey. There were plans to sell a majority share of my company and step back as a consultant, and the money would come from there. My wife told me I am being unfair and cruel to her against her daughter. I think Lynsey could be given everything on a silver platter and would whine she wasn’t given a silver spoon to go with it. I have asked why Lynsey doesn’t expect anything out of her father, other grandparents, or even her brother. And she refused any offer of therapy. I love my wife, but I am not budging on his. Help.

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— Money Honey

Dear Money Honey,

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your wife’s position here. You’ve already made the generous offer to help Lynsey using your business shares, despite the separation that you and your wife pre-established. (Although, I guess it could be argued that since you’re living in the house, there’s less separation than there may seem. But I don’t need to get into it. If it works, it works.) But it’s patently outrageous for Lynsey to expect relatives to whom she is not related to help her. I understand where Lynsey’s emotional response here is probably coming from—it’s must be hard navigating the financial disparity between herself and her step-siblings. But that doesn’t give her the right to take it out on them or on you.

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This response, however, does give a clue into what the real issue between you and your wife may be. Clearly there are financial solutions, which you’re already making plans for. But it’s possible your wife is taking on her daughter’s hurt and in need of more support from you as she attempts to support Lynsey. She may need you to play peacemaker with your kids or to give Lynsey more leeway. Whether you want to do that or not is up to you. But I’d suggest separating the money as much as possible and talking with your wife about your family dynamic. The money will always be part of it, of course, but as much as you two can reconnect around the other things that are important to you, you may be able to see your way through more clearly.

Classic Prudie

My 10-year-old son recently came home in tears because a man on our street slapped him across the back. When I got the full story out of him, it transpired that he and a couple of other friends had been ringing people’s door bells and running away. I checked his back and there wasn’t even a red mark—he was crying out of embarrassment and shock and was clearly not physically harmed. I took him to the neighbor’s home and made my son apologize for being a nuisance. The neighbor was also deeply apologetic and said he went too far. He said he was at home receiving medical treatment and this wasn’t the first time he was disturbed by young pranksters. I gave him my number and said if he ever found my son doing this again, he could call me and I would ensure there was a proper punishment. The neighbor also said sorry to my boy. The rest of the family, however, is furious…

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