My mom died and my stepfather kept everything. Is that right?


Q. My mother passed away from cancer a few years ago. She was married and her husband, my stepfather took and disposed of everything. My aunts say my mother said she wanted her estate to be shared between myself and my half-siblings, but I don’t know if she has a will. Because I was her only child not with her husband, does that entitle me to any direct benefits from her estate if she didn’t have a will? And if she did have one, where would I find it?
— Daughter

A. We’re sorry to hear about your mom.

If a decedent is a resident of New Jersey at the time of death and has a will, the will is probated in the county of residence.

The will, once probated, is a public document, said Catherine Romania, an estate planning attorney with Witman Stadtmauer in Florham Park.

You will need to provide the surrogate with the decedent’s name and date of death in order to learn if a will was probated and for a fee you may obtain a copy, she said.

“Some surrogates have websites that will provide some information online although in order to obtain an actual copy of the will, you will have to contact the surrogate directly and pay a fee,” Romania said. “Therefore, you may contact the surrogate of the county in which your mother resided at the time of her death to learn more.”

If there was a will that was admitted to probate, New Jersey law requires the executor send the beneficiaries named in the will and all heirs at law — which includes children — a notice. It should include an offer to send you a copy of the will or advise you on how to get a copy, she said.

If there was no will, then the laws of intestacy apply.

“In circumstances as you describe, where there is a surviving spouse and children of the decedent who are not children of the surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse is entitled to the first 25% of the intestate estate but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one half the balance of the intestate estate and the children of the decedent receive the other half of the balance of the intestate estate,” she said.

It is possible however that nothing was in your mother’s name alone so that there was nothing in the probate or intestate estate,” Romania said.

“Instead, if everything was in joint names or payable to a named beneficiary, it would have been paid directly to the surviving joint tenant or the named beneficiary and not by the will designation or laws of intestacy,” she said.

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This story was originally published on June 5, 2020. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.

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