What if a Beneficiary Steals From the Estate?

By Jennifer Kiesewetter, J.D.

What if a Beneficiary Steals From the Estate?

By Jennifer Kiesewetter, J.D.

When a loved one dies, emotions can run high. You may be planning a funeral, satisfying financial obligations, and cleaning out your loved one's home. During this difficult time, you might notice certain assets are missing. What should you do if you suspect that a beneficiary is stealing from the estate?

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1. Take Inventory.

Typically, an executor inventories the deceased's estate by listing assets and gathering documentation. If certain items are missing, you must determine if those items are merely missing or if someone took those items without permission.

What are some red flags that may indicate estate theft? Here are some questions you can ask yourself while taking inventory of the estate's assets.

  • Were any amendments, or codicils, to the will made before the decedent's death?
  • Was a family member close to the decedent excluded from an inheritance without reason?
  • Is there personal property missing?
  • Does a non-family member stand to inherit the estate or a large part of it?
  • Was property given away right before the decedent's death?
  • Was the will signed, or witnessed, in front of an attorney?

2. Hire a Forensic Accountant.

If you suspect theft from an estate, you may hire a forensic accountant to inspect and examine the decedent's financial and property records. A forensic accountant can spot any irregularities or missing items from an estate, potentially indicating theft. They can also calculate any damages resulting from the theft.

3. Recover Stolen Assets.

After having determined which assets are missing, you must attempt to recover them. Executors can resolve many types of estate theft without filing a lawsuit.

Communicate with the Beneficiary

First, ask the beneficiary to return the assets to the estate. For example, the beneficiary might not know that taking some journals or photographs is illegal. Having a conversation with the beneficiary may result in an immediate resolution. For example, if a child of the deceased misunderstood what property was hers or his, the executor can address this issue through a conversation. However, when theft extends to modifying or forging deeds to real property or withdrawing money from the deceased's bank or investment accounts, a judge may need to help you recover any assets.

File a Lawsuit

It's illegal to take assets from an estate without the express permission of the probate court judge or the executor. You might have to obtain a court order from the probate judge to have missing items returned. Additionally, you may also engage in probate litigation to determine if a beneficiary stole assets. Although a judge cannot disqualify a beneficiary from receiving an inheritance, a judge can make the beneficiary pay all damages to the estate associated with the theft.

At trial, the executor or the personal representative of the estate must present proof of the theft through documents or testimony. A judge can order that the beneficiary return the assets to the estate and pay restitution or damages. If the beneficiary who committed these acts was the executor or a personal representative of the estate, then the judge may remove them from that position. Theft from an estate can also result in civil and criminal charges.

When determining whether a beneficiary stole from a deceased's estate, you should discuss your options on recovering these assets with a probate attorney or use an online service provider. Defining the recovery process and identifying the damages is complicated. By seeking legal help, you can ensure that the estate isn't compromised.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.