Deaths in the family are commonly heart-rending and confusing events. Many questions can arise surrounding the decedent’s estate, especially involving the items in and around the home of the departed loved one that are not included in the will.
Clients often ask: After someone dies, can a family member remove items from a home without permission? The answer is, no! No one should remove items from a home after someone dies unless they get approval from the executor or administrator of the estate.
When someone dies with a will, an executor is appointed to administer the estate. The executor has the duty and powers to settle the decedent’s estate according to the guidelines of the will. Part of the executor’s duties include getting an appraisal of the decedent’s personal property, which includes such possessions as the home’s furnishings, vehicles, bank holdings, stocks, and other belongings. The executor also must account for the decedent’s interest in real property, which may include land, commercial buildings, and other homes.
Accordingly, an executor can’t stand by while a decedent’s personal property walks out the door as if it were suddenly up for grabs on a first-come, first-served basis. If, for instance, a big-screen television were specifically willed to someone, the executor has a duty to make sure that person gets the TV. If, however, the television was not bequeathed to a particular person, it should be included in the general inventory of the estate. The executor can then decide whether to sell the television in order to convert it to cash for distribution according to the will or to distribute it to a beneficiary in lieu of cash.
Preserving the property in the estate becomes crucial so that the executor can distribute the decedent’s property as dictated by the will. In some cases, executors physically secure a home with locks so that the belongings inside can be preserved for appraisal and distribution.
As a matter of practicality, most wills are not specific enough to account for every television, chair, and teacup. But that doesn’t mean that a friend or relative of the decedent can cart off these belongings as if they were free. If a family member or friend were to take property, it would be considered breaking the law. Every situation is different, but it’s certainly possible that someone taking estate property could be charged with burglary or theft. Ownership doesn’t go into limbo when someone dies – the property belongs to the estate of the decedent until it is distributed. So if someone takes property that wasn’t willed to him or her or distributed to him or her by the executor, he or she has committed a crime.
The bottom line is that people have to exercise a little patience and common sense. In most cases, the executor is part of the family, and families usually can work together to divide property in a way that’s acceptable to everyone. However, bringing the trailer over to grandma’s house and spiriting away the antique dresser you’ve always wanted definitely isn’t the way to go. If there are items that you wish to inherit, cooperate with the executor or administrator and be patient. While letting them know you wish to inherit an item doesn’t guarantee you will receive it, it does alert them that you are interested in a particular piece.
If you are the executor or administrator of an estate property, call me, Charlotte Volsch, at
(760) 912-8905. I have the necessary experience in probate real estate to help you with any asset distribution issues.