The Moneyist: When our 99-year-old mother was dying, one sister moved in and sold her stuff. The other put the house in her name. What can we do?

Dear Quentin,

My mother passed away five weeks before her 100th birthday. We are not a family of money, but Mom had saved a little bit to give to her remaining children. One sister who actually had the most money moved to town while Mom was in Virginia staying with me for six months during the winter.

This was a plan to get into Mom’s house, and to take all of her possessions that should have been part of her estate. She did it under the pretense to have Mom’s house ready for her to move into when she came home. My sister took everything to sell to antique stores because she is a habitual shopper. She has been through bankruptcy at least twice. 

‘Mom, like many old people, tucked these things in with towels, the jewelry box, dresser drawers.’

Now the attorney is getting ready to settle the estate. Another sister has pictures of the inside of Mom’s house, so many of her things missing are in those pictures. She knows we know she stole so much stuff while Mom was away, including cash, numerous checks, and gift cards that family gave her for holidays and Mother’s Day. 

Mom, like many old people, tucked these things in with towels, the jewelry box, dresser drawers. While we will never know how much my sister found, we do know of the items she removed, like old crocks, lanterns, etc. When the will is finally determined, do we have the right to bring this one sister to account for all the items she put in yard sales to sell?

She has claimed it wasn’t her, and that someone else must have stolen it. Not true! How do we do this? Another sister moved into Mom’s house to care for her for the last two to three years, and the house was put in her name for her to care for Mom. Is there anything we can do to reclaim that house in Mom’s estate as part of the estate sale? 

I know this is messy. My brother was named executor and he really didn’t know what he was doing. As a consequence, we have had to live with his mistakes. Help, please.

Desperate Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

Decide what deserves your time and attention the most — the house or the belongings — because time is of the essence. You need to make a choice: trying to prove what was taken from your mother’s house, or the validity of the change of title on the house itself. 

For the former, a trust litigation attorney could help you trace the missing items and investigate what happened to them. That could be a time-consuming and expensive process that may or may not give you the answers or evidence that you need or want. 

“Generally, the theft of estate assets by a sibling is treated as a civil matter. That means: No jail time is involved. As a victim, you do have the option to make a criminal complaint and ask the district attorney to prosecute your sibling,” according to RMO Probate Litigation.

It’s not so uncommon for an adult child to move in with a parent and believe the family home should come to them because they have given up their time to take care of their mother or father. They regard it as a sacrifice that requires payback, rather than a choice. 

“Even if the elderly person ‘agrees’ to change the will, undue influence will be found if the beneficiary used ‘excessive persuasion’ to overcome the elderly person’s free will in causing the change to the will,” according to the Law Offices of Andrew Ritholz. “What is and is not excessive persuasion and free will is going to be challenging analysis in many cases, and may require factual investigation.” 

You do have two things in your favor: The house has not been sold to a third party, and it has not yet gone through probate.

Part of any investigation will involve gathering testimony from witnesses, including family members, bank records, the attorney involved in the transfer of the deed to your sister, and medical reports on your late mother’s health leading up to and during this period.

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The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

‘I’m getting compassion fatigue’: My parents said they’d rather quit their jobs and lose everything than get the COVID-19 vaccine
My abusive ex never contributed to our home’s mortgage. Do I still owe him half the equity if his name is on the deed?
My brother’s soon-to-be ex-wife is embezzling money from their business. How do we find hidden accounts?
‘Grandma recently passed away, leaving behind a 7-figure estate. Needless to say, things are getting messy’

This post was originally published on Market Watch

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