Your widowed dad seems to have new pep. He’s getting out more, looking trimmer and more dapper in new clothes. He skips the old boys’ breakfasts at the diner and makes reservations at farm-to-table bistros instead. He starts taking cha-cha lessons. Then he drops a bomb: He’s taking a jaunt through Europe, and his companion will be his new girlfriend, Goldie. (Or it could be Mom and her new beau, Bill.)
Should you be happy or suspicious? If Goldie is in similar circumstances—divorced or widowed, with her own assets—you might be thrilled. But if she’s much younger and your family and friends have never heard of her before, it could be hard to tell if you’re dealing with a paramour or a predator.
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Bradley Frigon, an elder-law attorney in Denver, says that more of his clients are ending up in these relationships. “People are living longer and are more likely to enter into new romances after a divorce or the death of a spouse,” he said. Assuming that your father (or mother) is of sound mind, he has the legal right to do whatever he wants with his money. So proceed with caution.
Don’t jump to conclusions, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009). Spend lots of time with your dad and his new love interest. You should get to know her before you decide that she’s after his money.
There’s another reason to invest time in fact-finding. Your sudden interest in the situation might appear as though all you want is the money from your dad’s estate, Frigon says. You want it to be clear that you are only interested in your parent’s happiness. It could turn out after all that Goldie (or Bill) is a gem.
A meeting between your dad and an elder-law or estate-planning attorney can organize the financial documents that might ease everyone’s mind, including Goldie’s. You or your parent can expect to pay $150 to $600 an hour for a consultation depending on where he lives and the attorney’s experience.
The lawyer will want to know first if Dad has a power of attorney in place, says Steve Hartnett, associate director of education at the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. “If he does, and has named a true gold digger as his immediate power of attorney, that’s a worry,” he said, “because it means she has the same access to his assets as he does, and can move them around.” If that’s not the case, the attorney is likely to suggest a springing power of attorney, which means that Dad would have to be declared incapacitated before it went into effect. Of course, your dad can name whomever he wants to control his finances, but a springing power of attorney buys you time if you disagree.
If your father has decided that he wants to remarry, the attorney may recommend a prenuptial agreement. It will itemize the assets each partner is bringing to the marriage, and clarify which will be owned jointly and which will be kept separate. The agreement will also make clear who will get what if the marriage fails or if either partner dies.
In most states, a new spouse can receive an “elective share” of her husband’s estate even if his will states that everything should go to his children and grandchildren after his death. A prenuptial agreement may override such laws. Your dad and his intended should each have their own representation to draw one up, Hartnett says. If they both use an attorney your dad hired, his wife could invalidate it by claiming that her interests were not represented and that she didn’t understand what she signed. Legal fees for prenuptials run from about $1,500 for the simplest document to $10,000 or more if there are millions of dollars involved. If your father would like to leave something to you and his other children from his first marriage, he can set up an irrevocable trust. He can structure it any way he wants, including making sure that it will provide income for Goldie while she’s alive.
If you are certain that Goldie is trying to scam your dad, you’ll need to persuade him. If you dig up any dirt, present it as gently as possible. He’ll be more receptive if he’s convinced that you have only his best interests at heart, Newman says. Consider enlisting a professional he trusts, such as a lawyer, therapist, or member of the clergy, to strengthen your case. If that fails, turn over your evidence to the authorities where he lives.
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.
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