Reader dilemma: Our stepfather's children didn't care about him when he was alive - so do they deserve his money now?

"I’ve experienced dilemmas of this kind myself in the past, and been sorely tempted to sneak in, grab the money and run"

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Dear Virginia,

My mother, a widow, married a widower. After she died, he moved into sheltered accommodation but asked his children, who live abroad, to sort through his stuff. They took some furniture and then made a pile for the dump which really upset my stepfather because they chucked out a lot of stuff that he loved. So he brought it back from the dump. He’s since died and my brother and I have been told that these things will fetch £9,000 in the saleroom. Do we have to give the money to his heartless children?

Yours sincerely,

Adrianna

Virginia says

Oh dear. There’s a reason they say “When there’s a will there’s a war” – and already, even though no war has yet been started, you’re starting to worry if one might begin.

On the one hand, I think you’re on pretty safe ground. Your stepfather’s children clearly didn’t want his stuff. They showed this by not just leaving it at home but actually taking it to the dump. If there were any legal problems about who it belonged to then, your stepfather sorted that out by collecting it from the dump and bringing it home. It always had been, despite its brief residence at the dump, his. But we all know that, legally, if your stepfather’s effects were left to his children, then that furniture – or any proceeds resulting from a sale – is theirs. You know in your heart of hearts that if you took the money you’d be cheating his children out of £9,000.

I’ve experienced dilemmas of this kind myself in the past, and been sorely tempted to sneak in, grab the money and run. But, as I have a horror of doing anything illegal, I’ve always done the right thing in the end. If I’d gone ahead with my sneaky plans, the torment of guilt I would have felt wouldn’t have been worth the money in the long run.

And before you start on any venture like this, you have to ask what is the likelihood of being caught? Did any of the children come back to the house and see any of the furniture since your stepfather went into a home? Did any of their friends? Did your stepfather tell any of them what he’d done? Has probate been carried out on your stepfather’s possessions and did this include the furniture?

Then, how well do your know his children? You call them heartless, but maybe they had good reason to be. Maybe your saintly stepfather treated them scandalously when he was their father, and maybe they’ve been paying out a fortune in counselling fees to get themselves straightened out, and it was only after he met your mother that he calmed down and became the nice old gent you remember? And again, how well off are they? Are they scrimping and saving while looking after large families of disabled children?

I’d be tempted. Goodness knows, I’d do anything not to feel a twinge of conscience about taking the money. But remember, once you’ve taken it, unless you’ve got a pretty thick skin, you may be tormented for the rest of your life, endlessly washing your hands, Lady Macbeth-style, to get rid of the stain you feel on your soul. On balance, I’d choke down your baser instincts to cheat, and be above board. The lightness and relief of occupying the higher moral ground are feelings that can never be bought.

Readers say...

Sell it at your own risk

When householders pile material for disposal or put it into a skip, in British law they still retain possession, so taking it is theft. But this law is rarely enforced, because most householders don’t care, and the police are not interested, as they have far more to be concerned about.  Skip-rummaging is common and rarely impeded. When it reaches the council tip, dumped material becomes the property of the council, who do enforce their rights. If, however, the widower’s children observed that stuff had been taken and did nothing about it, then you might legitimately infer that they are not bothered that it was taken. You sell it at your own risk, but as the widower’s children are abroad I cannot see them finding out or being bothered.

Frances Beswick, by email

Think of it as a gift

Having watched my family shamefully scrabbling over deceased relatives’ possessions in the past, I can only say that, in my experience if the gentleman’s family wanted any of these possessions they already would have taken possession of them before taking them to the dump. I would consider anything left over, therefore to be yours, as you are obviously the people who have been left to sort out his affairs (since anything of value has already been claimed by his children when he went into sheltered accommodation). Without your help, these possessions would be in a landfill site anyway.

I don’t think for a second that you need to inform his kids of your discovery. Think of it as a thank-you gift from beyond the grave for the care and attention you continued to give him after your mother died.

Name and address supplied

Get legal advice

Although, morally, his children don’t deserve to profit from the furniture after trying to bin it, it’s worth consulting a legal professional to make sure that you won’t suffer any repercussions. The £9,000 is a lot of money, but it is not worth years of legal battles if his children do find out. If you do choose to sell the furniture, perhaps you could give some of the money to your stepfather’s favourite charity, or dedicate something in his honour, for example, a bench somewhere he enjoyed visiting. Or it would be nice to keep a few pieces each, to remind you of him.

Name and address supplied

Next week's dilemma

My son, 20, suffers from a mental illness, which is becoming worse. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with him, but from dawn to dusk he shouts at me, tirades of abuse. I try to go out a lot because I’m anxious all the time, or spend a lot of time in my bedroom, praying he won’t start again. It’s so sad, because I remember him until he was 15 being such a lovely boy. I’m told by the medical profession there’s nothing that can be done unless he gets so bad he has to be sectioned or he admits to himself there’s a problem. Counsellors just tell me to ask him to stop or move out. What can I do?

Yours sincerely,

Mary

What would you advise Mary to do?  Write to dilemmas@independent.co.uk. Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian chocolates from funkyhampers.com (twitter.com/funkyhampers)

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