What can I do about a suspected estate theft?
October 03, 2013
Q: My sister and I are executors on our late mom's estate. I believe my sister has stolen a large amount of money from mom's savings accounts, and she won't let me see any of the bank records. Is there anything I can do?
A: If your suspicions are correct, this is a very serious matter and you are going to want to consult a lawyer. Perhaps the best place to start, though, is by investigating whether those suspicions are correct.
Put together an inventory of the estate's assets: savings accounts, investment accounts and anything else of value. Then, you'll want to establish the current status of those accounts, and work backwards to see what has happened with them since your mother died. If your sister is being uncooperative about the account records, don't bother trying to work through her. Since you are named as an executor, you should be able to use that authority to approach the bank where the accounts are held and request copies of the records. Just ask the bank what documentation they will need in order to accept your authority to see those records.
When you have the bank statements, go through them and look for any withdrawals that have been made after your mother's death. If you find such withdrawals, follow up with the bank and ask for documentation of who ordered those withdrawals. If those withdrawals were transfers to another account or institution (as opposed to cash withdrawals), you should make a note of where the money went. Then, double check to see whether these transfers could have been distributions pursuant to the terms of your mother's will, though if you and your sister are joint executors, those are decisions you should have been making together.
Incidentally, even if you didn't suspect your sister of improperly taking money from the estate, you should be getting your hands on the account information anyway. Not only should you account for everything before you start making distributions according to the terms of the estate, but you should also make sure there aren't any pressing matters that need to be attended to regarding how that money is being handled. This could involve anything from making decisions on the rollover of a CD to making sure that an investment account is being appropriately managed. Also, depending on the size of the estate, there may be tax considerations you'll have to address.
The bottom line is that if you find your sister has made improper withdrawals from the account, you'll want to consult a lawyer to protect yourself and the interests of the estate's beneficiaries.