When family members help themselves to property
One of the jobs of an executor or personal representative is to inventory the estate of the deceased. The trouble starts when assets or documents that should be present cannot be found. Are they misplaced? Safely tucked away somewhere? Or did a family member swoop in and take them without permission?
This is a common scenario after a loved one has passed. Missing assets trigger suspicions and accusations. Inheritance disputes may ultimately lead to litigation or even criminal charges. Whether out of jealousy, a sense of entitlement or cold-blooded fraud, it is unlawful to remove assets from a Minnesota estate without express approval from a probate judge or the representative of the estate.
Do you suspect pilfering?
If you are in charge of administering an estate and cannot locate missing assets – or if you are an heir and have reason to believe a relative has walked off with property that rightfully belongs to you and other beneficiaries – consult legal counsel.
Commonly misappropriated assets include:
- Jewelry, artwork and valuables
- Photos, keepsakes and heirlooms
- Furniture and small appliances
- Cash kept in the home
Family members sometimes gain access to safes, safety deposit boxes, bank accounts and investment accounts, through stealth or through undue influence over an elderly person. We have seen cases in which relatives brazenly transferred vehicle titles, real estate deeds or business assets to themselves. When confronted, the party may try to justify the misappropriation: “That ring has always been in my family.” “Dad meant for me to have the classic car.” “I had no idea it was worth so much. I only wanted it for the sentimental value.”
Can missing assets be recovered?
When the executor opens the estate, all property is identified and gathered. After assets are valued they are distributed according to the will – or according to Minnesota laws of intestacy in the absence of a will. If a specific asset is not mentioned in the will, that doesn’t mean that relatives can help themselves.
If you know or suspect that an individual has taken assets without authorization, you want to find an attorney who is experienced not only in estate administration but probate litigation.
It may be possible to quietly resolve a “misunderstanding” by convincing the individual to return the property in question. If they refuse or deny any knowledge, it may be necessary to involve the police or sheriff to retrieve the property, or to get a court order from a probate judge. In certain cases, a trial may be necessary to sort out who is eligible to inherit and how property is to be divvied up.
The best policy is to secure the house and estate as soon as you assume the mantle as executor or representative. This may involve moving portable items to a safe location or changing the locks. It is also a good idea to take photos or video of the contents of the home. This not only preserves the estate but protects you from allegations if assets go missing.