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‘I want to do what is right’: My father died without a will. His wife moved out of state — and left me paying the mortgage. 

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Dear Quentin,

My father died in 2021 with no will. He shared a home with his second wife. The house is financed under both their names with a small amount of equity ($40,000). She moved out of state shortly after he died. I moved into the house and have been paying the note since. 

She can’t afford the monthly payments. I am second in succession as his only child. I need a place to live while I fix my other home. My FICO score
FICO,
+0.46%

is very poor, but it will increase when I pay off my home in 2025 or 2026. I want to do what is right, but she hasn’t answered me the last couple of times I called. She knew the home was financed, but English is her second language, and she doesn’t trust me.

Her children can’t help. I offered them the opportunity to sell it to me, to keep it for her and make payments, or to sell it outright. They thought about it for two months, but they moved her and some furniture out and I moved in. Now no one answers me.

I would appreciate your help. The house is located in New Mexico.

Stepdaughter

Related: ‘I don’t want my wife to lose everything’: I’ve been diagnosed with dementia — I suddenly could not spell or write legibly

“Think carefully about making a financial decision based on your emotional attachment to this house.”

MarketWatch illustration

Dear Stepdaughter,

You don’t say whether your father bought this house before or during their marriage, or whether your stepmother’s name is on the deed, but the end result is the same if they are both on the mortgage: This house is deemed community property and, as such, your stepmother is the sole owner. In New Mexico, if a person dies and leaves behind a spouse and children, their spouse receives 100% of their community property and one-quarter of their separate property, with their children receiving the rest.

Why do you want to buy your father’s home? Does it hold sentimental value, or do you believe you will get a good deal from your stepmother and be able to rent it out? Think carefully about making a financial decision based on any emotional attachment to this house. Most people process their grief and recover within a year after a loss, but it can take even longer than that, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some people experience a prolonged grieving process. You should only buy this house if it makes financial sense.

After the death of a loved one, we can decide that our unhappiness can be lifted or solved if we change other things in our lives. In your case, it could be purchasing your father’s home because he loved that house and you don’t want it to fall into the hands of strangers. That’s understandable, but you may feel differently later on. For other people, it could be changing jobs — even though most people have things they like or dislike about their work — or selling personal items that remind them of their lost relative.

Start the probate process

You need somewhere to live right now while your house is being renovated, but I urge you to  get the ball rolling with probate and contact the surrogate’s court or county courthouse so an administrator can be appointed for your father’s estate. Your stepmother has dropped the ball and, for reasons known only to her, moved out of state. You could also petition the probate court to appoint you as the administrator of your father’s estate. Either way, it’s time to focus on your father’s estate rather than paying the mortgage on his house.

As his only child, you will be entitled to three-quarters of his separate estate, but that does not include his house, given that he shared it with his wife. I assume if she is on the mortgage, she is also on the deed. Most couples would own a property as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. Assuming all that is the case, you are paying the mortgage on a property that you do not own. You are kicking the can down the road until you can no longer afford to pay for two homes. This money is better spent on your own home.

Now is the time to focus on your own financial and emotional wellbeing. Any assets held in a trust, accounts that are payable on death, or life-insurance policies with a listed beneficiary will avoid probate. Keeping credit-card balances low and paying your debts and bills on time will help you build your FICO score. Avoid opening new credit cards or closing old ones in an attempt to improve your credit score. Always check your credit report for errors, and figure out what led to your score being so low in the first place. (You can read more on the FICO website.)

You say you want to do what is right. If you continue to pay off this home, you are paying off somebody else’s debt. Given your credit score and the fact that you have another home to take care of, it does not make sense to make your stepmother’s house your responsibility. She has left town and is incommunicado. It’s time to put yourself first. I have no doubt your father would have wanted to see you financially stable, living in your own home without the stress and strain of having to take ownership of his home.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. 

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

Previous columns by Quentin Fottrell:

‘Things have not been easy’: My sister is a hoarder and procrastinator. She is delaying probate of our parents’ estate. What can I do?

‘I gave up a job that I loved passionately’: My husband secretly set up a trust that includes our home and his investments. What should I do?

I have $1.5 million in stocks and bonds. I asked my broker to convert my bonds to cash. He didn’t and my portfolio fell by $100,000. Can I sue?

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