There are people out there who see a senior citizen and immediately see dollar signs. They see a potential answer to their own financial problems, and figure that if they do the right things, and wait long enough, their proverbial ship will come in via a nice, fat, interest-accruing inheritance.
Most of the time, these people keep themselves well hidden, given how ghoulish and distasteful the idea of waiting out someone's death is. The only time we ever hear about them, in fact, is when the newspaper reports that an elderly senior citizen has recently gotten married, and even more recently died. That's when the alarm bells go off for most of us, as we shake our heads at the callousness of some people and how shameful it is to try to profit from the death of someone you're supposed to love. We watch as the case is dragged through the courts for years, often completely eating up whatever inheritance there actually was, and feel real anger towards those heartless individuals who defend their claim to the money and turn their shrewd gaze on anyone who would try to take it away from them, like vultures circling ominously overhead.
But if we believe that the heartless individuals in question are the new, younger spouses of these older folks, we're very much mistaken. The vultures are the senior's grown children, hanging around the graveside, waiting for their cash.
I've noticed this on several occasions. Whenever my city newspaper prints a story about a younger widow trying to inherit her share of her husband's estate, the headline always states something like "Black Widow Fights Kids for Dad's Cash", and the accompanying photo is always a wide-angle, doleful shot of three or four middle aged people all clustered around a faded sepia portrait of their parents' wedding day, with a caption that expresses their outrage at the legal battle they've had to launch against their late parent's younger spouse. This woman is invariably maligned in the story, accused of everything from kidnapping to extortion to being young and beautiful. She is often called "tenacious" or "relentless" because of her refusal to relinquish her successor rights, while no such comments are made about the equally tenacious and relentless "children". The age difference between the couple is always mentioned, and indeed is usually the reason for the lawsuit in the first place.
This is becoming a great concern, some stories quote, for the legions of baby boomers out there whose elderly parents are in danger of falling victim to "marital predators". The Canadian Bar Association recently hosted a symposium called "Every Child's Nightmare", addressing what they see as a serious threat to elderly citizens, and family lawyers everywhere are actively endorsing new legislation that prevents existing wills from becoming automatically invalidated when a senior citizen marries, as is currently the case. Some families seek new legislation preventing seniors from marrying without familial permission, or other vague changes to make it not "so easy to get married". All of this, apparently, to "protect" senior citizens.
Make no mistake, the only thing being protected here are the financial interests of a group of vultures.
Frankly, I don't like any discussion surrounding who gets what when someone dies. I think it's callous and cold and utterly meaningless in the face of the staggering loss of someone you love. But there are very real principles involved in cases like these, principles that have somehow been completely inverted, distorted, or manipulated by those who would profit from them.
I don't know how these people ever managed to get the moral upper hand and garner sympathy among the public and so-called 'unbiased' newspaper writers. I don't know how they can show their faces with such self-righteous indignation and expect to be pitied for their struggle to gain control of someone else's money. I don't know how a group of people who do exactly the same thing as their step mothers do, only without nearly enough justification, expect and demand to be rewarded, felt sorry for, vindicated by the courts.
I am outspoken about the fact that children owe their parents nothing, and that no parent has the right to demand or expect care, attention, financial support, or even love from their children. The vast majority of grown children do love and care for their parents; I simply maintain that they are under no obligation to do so. But by the same token, grown children have no right to expect or demand such things from their parents, either. I can understand minor children needing financial protection in the event of their parents' death, but when a group of grown adults demand their parents' money, it smacks of unadulterated greed.
There comes a point, certainly before you reach middle age, when you must take responsibility for your own life, you must make your own fortune and you must depend on the fruits of your own effort to support yourself. Your parents did it, after all. There is absolutely no excuse for fifty-year-olds to lay claim to their parents estate simply because they were born to them. If parents want to leave their entire estate to a cat sanctuary in Omaha, or to the kind nurse who spent time with them in the nursing home, or to a new spouse, their wishes must be respected. It's their money.
Yet this attitude of entitlement is so enshrined in our society that even questioning it will likely raise eyebrows. Of course you inherit from your parents. That's the way it goes. Even if you shut them up in a nursing home and never give them a second thought, you're entitled to their cash, dammit. If Mom or Dad does anything to threaten your inheriting their money, take it to court. Sue for your god given right to every penny your parents worked their entire lives to earn.
I know I have an uphill battle of epic proportions on my hands if I try to change the proprietary attitudes so prevalent in our society; I can hear the roar of outraged self-righteousness even as I write this. I know I won't change minds about this too easily. But this entitlement epidemic is not the only problem I see in matters surrounding step kids and new spouses; there are far larger issues we should be paying attention to.
One of the more insidious implications of a proposed law that "protects" the elderly from marriage is that it endorses the idea that anyone over the age of, say, sixty, is mentally incompetent and can't possibly make sound decisions for themselves. The older you get, the more mentally inept you become, it seems. In one recent case, the elderly gentleman in question had held down a full time job as a chemical company salesman until he was eighty years old - yet his "children" maintained that when he married soon afterwards, and changed his will he was in a "mentally weakened state". The judge upheld their argument, disinheriting his wife because he was "under the influence of a woman determined to gain control and ownership of his money." The judge failed to comment on the fact that it was, in fact, the man's grown children who were determined to gain control and ownership of his money.
How insulting to the memory of this man, who lived a long life, was widowed twice and raised four children, and who, in his final years at the rest home where his children put him, decided to try one last go at love. How insulting that a lifetime of wisdom and experience can be so easily dismissed as the mental wanderings of a fool.
But a proposal to protect seniors from marriage goes even farther than saying they can't make sound decisions. It does not allow older people to make unsound decisions if they want to, something that every adult is free to do without constraint. If someone of thirty is perfectly free to marry without anyone questioning the suitability or sincerity of their mate, why shouldn't someone of sixty, or eighty or one hundred, have that same right? Even if, in those rare and extreme cases of heartless gold-digging, an elderly man nearing the end of his life gets some pleasure and enjoyment from marrying one last time, who are we to determine that he should not enjoy this pleasure? Why should his grown children have proprietary rights to his estate if he wants to give it to someone else, instead? We do not have to approve of his behavior, or his wife, but as a free society we must respect his decision.
This is not a question of wisdom or prudence or level-headedness, nor is it an attempt to excuse or justify the behavior of those who do view marriage as a meal ticket. It is simply a matter of rights. Adults enjoy the freedom of being able to marry, and divorce, if they choose, and if we start making "good judgment" a requirement for every major decision in life, there's nothing to stop the rest of our rights from being eroded away either. Imagine if you had to pass a government sponsored test and psychological exam before being allowed to have children, or change jobs, or move to a different part of the country. And imagine if these choices were taken from you completely, and handed over to your children, instead, once you reached a certain age.
We simply must be allowed to make mistakes, and to live with their consequences. No individual, group, or society has the right to question an adult's choices, especially in marriage, unless that adult is medically proven to be incapable of making their own decisions, no matter how old they are. No court in the land would rule that the unscrupulous wife of a thirty-year old man was disentitled to his estate simply because her motives for marrying him may not have been admirable.
This leads to a common argument, and the most salient point of this issue. If grown children are not automatically entitled to inherit, why should a spouse be? Those who ask this question have a higher regard for the entitlement rights of grown children than they do for the institution of marriage, and fail to understand that marriage is of primary importance in a person's life, especially relative to their relationship with grown children.
Spouses,(and minor children) should be each other's only automatic legal heirs. The reasoning is simple. Minor children are your responsibility, and your legal spouse is someone you choose to share your life with. Given how relatively easy it is to divorce, it is reasonable to assume that the person to whom you are still legally married at the time of your death is the chosen beneficiary of your estate. The courts recognize marriage as a legal contract and as the ultimate choice, so apparent that you do not need to specifically name your spouse in your will in order for them to inherit. In most marriages, if the unthinkable happened and one of the partners died, there would be no question; the other spouse should be financially cared for, minor children should be protected, assets and possessions should naturally become the property of the surviving spouse. This should not change because of the ages of the parties, or the circumstances under which they married.
Grown children, on the other hand, may be estranged from you, or may live a lifestyle to which you object strongly. They may not reflect your values and may in fact have no relationship with you at all, by mutual agreement. Having produced a baby fifty years ago does not necessarily mean that you want the resulting adult in your life, or in your will for that matter. A person's responsibility for their offspring has to end at some point, or else we'd all be bound and indentured to the human beings we create for the rest of our lives.
This point comes when adulthood does - or at least it should. A lot of children never grow up, waiting instead for their parents' death to bring them financial security. This is ghoulish, and disrespectful, and further proves the point that if anyone should automatically inherit someone's wealth, it should not be someone who sits around and waits for it, and who will launch a law suit to make sure they get it, just because of their bloodlines. If grown children were truly concerned about the happiness and well-being of their parents, instead of their estate, they would give their blessing to their parents' marriage and be content with the knowledge that their parent is enjoying a blush of love so late in life. They would respect that their parents have the right to choose how and with whom to spend their last years.
The new spouse may not be Princess Charming. It doesn't matter. Your parents may not have liked who you married, either.
When judges make decisions that disinherit legal spouses, when they bow to the avarice of grown children and deny a spouse survivor rights, they are sending very clear messages; if you're old, you can't be trusted to make the right decisions regarding marriage. And you aren't allowed to make wrong decisions either. Your marriage is legally meaningless if your children don't like your spouse. You don't have the same rights as younger adults when it comes to having your decision to marry, however arrived at, respected by society and the law. This is a direct attack on older adults, and on the value of marriage itself, which, in cases like these particularly, represents the most fundamental of our freedoms and the most essential right we must strive to protect: choice.
Watch out for the vultures the next time you hear of a court case involving a "black widow." And remember, vultures eat spiders, too.