WayForth is a downsizing, senior move management, and estate clean-out company. We offer our probate resources as support for families settling an estate, but we do not offer legal services. If you'd like more estate settlement information, please download our probate workbook, How to Settle an Estate Without Losing your Mind or Breaking Apart Your Family.
“Sarah” and her brother had never been particularly close, but she was completely blindsided by his behavior on the day of their father’s funeral. The brother lived out of state, and, yes, she was a little surprised that he drove up to the funeral in a U-Haul truck, but she was too busy with the service and the rest of the family to give it much thought. She didn’t even notice that he didn’t come to the family gathering after the funeral.
It wasn’t until she went to check on her dad’s house the next day that she discovered that her brother had helped himself to everything he wanted—pretty much everything of value—and left town.
That her brother stole her inheritance was not only a huge personal betrayal, it left Sarah in a legal bind. If you are wondering, it was stealing because the property belonged to the estate, not to him. As the executor of her father's estate, Sarah is legally responsible for securing and inventorying all of her father's assets, including personal belongings. Only after all assets have been gathered and debts paid can she distribute property to the other beneficiaries.
For Sarah, stolen inheritance help came in the form of lawyers who were charged with reclaiming that inheritance. When her brother started denying he had stolen some of the missing items, it fell on Sarah to prove that he's the one who took them. If she can't get the entire stolen inheritance back, the other beneficiaries could sue her for not doing her fiduciary duty, and she could have to compensate them out of her own pocket for anything missing from the estate. In short, when here brother stole the inheritance, it left Sarah in a hot mess.
Cleaning out a loved one's house on the day of their funeral may sound extreme, but inheritance issues with siblings is a much more common scenario than many might want to believe. That's why the first order of business for every executor is to secure and protect the decedent's assets. Below are a few ways in which you can protect your inheritance from being stolen.
How to Protect Real Estate
As we mentioned before, inheritance theft by siblings is more common than people would like to think. If you know that you've been designated as the executor of an estate, don't wait to go to probate court to be qualified before changing the locks on the house. That should be done immediately after the death. In Sarah's case, her brother stole the inheritance before she even had a court date to become certified.
Securing the property is only half of your responsibility. You also have to protect all of the assets in the estate to keep them from deteriorating. For a house, that means keeping up with all of the insurance and mortgage payments and maintaining the property. You’ll need to keep the grass cut and the gutters clean. It's also a good idea to put some lights on a timer so the house doesn’t look abandoned.
How to Protect Personal Property
Inheritance problems with siblings are common but so is inheritance theft by extended family. Do your due diligence by collecting the keys to the car and making sure it’s in a safe place. It’s also a good idea to take smaller items of value, such as jewelry or a coin collection, out of the house and put someplace safe. You may want to consider renting a safety deposit box to store these types of items, along with any important papers, such as stock or bond certificates.
For larger items, such as antiques or valuable artwork, consider removing them from the empty house, too. If they are damaged or lost while the estate is in probate, you could be personally liable to the beneficiaries for their value. Keep detailed records of all high-value items, especially anything that you removed from the house for safekeeping, so there is never any question of where they are. By taking these measures you can prevent inheritance theft and avoid the problems that Sarah ran into.
How to Protect Financial Assets
Inheritance theft laws are there to protect the beneficiaries, but an executor must take precautions so those laws don’t have to be evoked. The first thing the executor needs to do is to freeze all of the decedent’s accounts, including bank, credit card, and brokerage accounts. You don’t need to be qualified by the court to get moving on this. You should call all financial institutions immediately and inform them of the death. That will put a freeze on all accounts until you can get qualified as the executor and begin taking possession of those assets. Be sure to plan for any direct deposits or automatic bill paying from frozen accounts.
Be Completely Transparent with Beneficiaries
Trying to prevent inheritance theft in the family can be seen differently under the circumstances. All of these steps have to be taken quickly, while the grief is still fresh and emotions are raw. So, it’s critical that you let everyone know what you’re doing and, more importantly, why you’re doing it. If you start changing locks and stashing away the good jewelry without communicating with other beneficiaries, they will likely assume the worst—that you’re stealing the inheritance yourself. Once that happens, it can be difficult to regain their trust and cooperation in what could become a long and trying process.
Need Help with an Estate Liquidation or Sale?
Our team of estate liquidators specializes in helping families and executors organize, move, and then sell estate belongs through an official estate sale. From initial planning to getting the house ready to go on the market, we help save you time and make the entire process as easy as possible. We'll even finance our own services.
If you'd like help planning what to do with the belongings in an estate, we can help at every step in the process.