Could you lose your inheritance to your stepmother? North & South editor-at-large Donna Chisholm investigates a law pitting family members against one another when a loved one dies.
Family lawyers say thousands of New Zealanders are being caught out by a little-known law change which is rendering some wills worthless.
Most disadvantaged are the children of first marriages whose parents later remarry and have a second family.
In the July issue of North & South magazine, legal experts explain how bereaved partners even if their relationship is quite short-lived have the option to take 50 percent of their late spouse’s estate, which may overturn the wishes expressed in the will.
Disinherited children have to take expensive court action for what they see as their rightful share.
"They're not totally powerless," says Auckland lawyer Bill Patterson, one of the country’s foremost authorities on family protection issues, "but they have an uphill struggle the way the dice are loaded at the moment."
The law change came in at the same time as that giving equal property rights to de facto partners but received almost no publicity and one lawyer told the magazine some families are finding the amendment incomprehensible and distressing.
The family lawyers say current legislation has not kept up with the changing dynamics of families, and the multiple partnerships people now enter into over their lifetime, and it's almost impossible to know which way judges will jump when cases come to court.
About 550 families a year are ending up in court to fight the cases which chief family court judge Peter Boshier describes as some of the most emotional and fraught he's ever seen.
North & South also examines changes to the Wills Act which are easing the way for informal wills to be validated, and discusses the tragic case of a young widow forced into court action with her in-laws over her late husband's will.