What Should You Do If Someone Stole From Your Loved One's Estate?

Posted on: 18 November 2019

When someone dies, you often must wait for the lawyer to read the will and name the executor. Then, the executor will tell the beneficiaries what each one gets, and they will divide the assets between them. When everyone involved is honest and the deceased has made proper plans for their estate, this goes smoothly. But sometimes, a beneficiary decides to buck the system and steal from the estate before the will is properly read. What happens then? What should you do as someone who knows about the theft?

What is considered beneficiary theft?

Taking anything from the estate before the will is read is considered beneficiary theft. This could include transferring a little money out of the deceased's account into the thief's account. It could also include removing valuable items from the estate, like earrings or valuable coins. If the will is read and the person who took these items or money was supposed to have them, according to the will, then there is often no reason to pursue legal action against the thief. However, what they did was still technically illegal since nothing is supposed to be removed from the estate before the will is read.

Is it beneficiary theft if the person planned on paying back the money?

Sometimes when a beneficiary is caught taking money or valuables from the estate, they will say that they were just borrowing it and intended to pay the money back. This intention does not matter. There is no way to knowing that they really would have paid the money back and that they were not just going to keep it. Many people do borrow from estates and do pay the money back before anyone catches them, but many others do take the money with no real intention of paying it back. It's best just to assume theft if you discover someone has taken money.

Can a beneficiary remove an item for safe-keeping without it being considered theft?

Say there is a valuable ring sitting inside the deceased's home. Is it theft if one of the beneficiaries takes that ring to their home to ensure nobody steals it? Maybe. The beneficiary can legally remove such items for safekeeping, but they need to notify the attorney who is handling the estate distribution case before doing so. If they do not tell anyone they are removing the items, it may be assumed that they were stealing them from the estate. The lawyer needs to keep a record of which items were taken from the home and where they all are to ensure assets are divided up equally once the will is read.

What should you do if you suspect beneficiary theft?

If you suspect that a beneficiary of an estate you are involved with has taken either money or items from the estate, your best plan of action is to notify the attorney who is distributing that estate. They can look into the potential theft by asking for copies of the bank statements. They can also look at the will and tell you whether or not the beneficiary would have received those items anyways when the will was read. If so, the lawyer will likely recommend against filing a lawsuit since it won't be worth the headache. However, if the stolen items were intended to go to someone else, you may want to file a civil case against the perpetrator. The lawyer can guide you through this process.

Beneficiary theft is a common problem. Nobody is supposed to take money or goods from an estate until the will is read. For more details regarding your specific situation, talk to an estates and trusts lawyer.