Is inheritance (in the case of a will) basically automatic?
July 14, 2020 12:31 AM   Subscribe

Hello, a family member of mine died this weekend, who I believe named another family member in their will. I'd like to know if there is any possibility of the executor or anyone else interfering with my family member who is due to inherit, or if it is straightforward and difficult to manipulate. If it's the former, I would like to know what I could do to make sure that the will is executed according to the deceased family member's wishes.

I'm not sure yet who the executor is, as this was changed since I was last updated. I'm concerned it may be one of my less trustworthy, more manipulative relatives.

There is not much in the way of material possessions, probably not a lot of savings, but there is a house that may need to be sold. I know the last point can be a difficult one, but I'm not sure if it's possible to manipulate this process to one's advantage.

Difficulty level: I live in another country overseas, the deceased and all other family members are in the US.
posted by stinker to Law & Government (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The executor has a fiduciary duty to the estate, and is supposed to treat the estate as though they are an agent of the estate executing the wishes of the deceased. There is definitely a lot of potential opportunity for manipulating the process, but the executor is typically under a bond and the beneficiaries have legal recourse if things go awry. Most of this is usually loosely overseen by the court, and if nobody squeaks, a lot of manipulation could go unnoticed.

The information in this blog post seems generally solid.
posted by jgreco at 2:25 AM on July 14, 2020

Before the executor has the authority to do anything, he or she must go to the probate court and secure written authority to act. Many executors, however, act as if they are already authorized to act before this is done.

A very common abuse is for family members to raid the home and divide up possessions, pretty much as they see fit, without notice to other family members. Sometimes they find the will and sometimes, on reading it, they take steps to ensure no one else will read it.

Another common occurrence: the executor or another family members moves someone into the home, occupying it rent-free. Then the process of administration can be drawn out over many months to maximize the period of occupancy.

Once papers are filed with the probate court, they are public records and can be inspected. The family members and the people named in the will (if any) are supposed to receive copies of notices, and each state has requirements for what must be filed, and when. Executors very often ignore these requirements. Your family member should make it a point to keep on top of this stuff.
posted by yclipse at 4:30 AM on July 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Any idea what lawyer the deceased used? You can reach out to them. If it is a small enough town you can contact all local lawyers. I do not believe the lawyers would be able to provide you with a copy of the will if you are not named, but if you provide the contact info of who you believe the beneficiary is (cc them on the email) they may be able to find more information.

Wills, and the way they are abused, is really a remember of grandfathered laws those laws should have been updated by now.
posted by saucysault at 6:59 AM on July 14, 2020

You're asking for "what can go wrong" so all the answers are negative. But the fundamental reality is if the will is clear and properly executed, the most valuable thing (the house) will probably transfer fine.

As a practical matter the typical concern is incompetence or malfeasance on the part of the executor. As yclipse notes, folks often just take stuff from the house after someone dies; without an inventory of property or someone trustworthy on-site keeping track, things go missing. It doesn't even have to be deliberate, there's a lot of "grandma always said she wanted me to have her pearls and I deserve them to remember her by".

Another practical concern is that it can drag on forever, executing a will. It's easy to imagine it taking a year+ to either deed the house over to the heir or else sell the house and transfer the money. And a lot can go wrong in an empty house for a year.

Being an executor is a thankless task. It may be whoever is named would be glad to hand over responsibility; either to the heir, or to some third party.
posted by Nelson at 7:51 AM on July 14, 2020

If you have reason to worry that the executor might not respect the deceased's wishes either by negligence or malice, I'd suggest having the beneficiary send them a brief note outlining their understanding of the will's terms as it pertains to them. Documenting this will make it more difficult for them to pretend they were ignorant of the issue. Your remedy for bad acts by the executor is to petition the probate court to compel the executor to compel them to take specific action (or in more extreme cases, to remove them as executor). Executors do have fairly broad discretion to sell assets to pay the debts of the estate and often it is unwise to turn things into an adversarial process. Most executors are aware that they have a specific legal obligation and can be held personally liable for ignoring the terms of the will, so they often try to do the right thing. Good luck.
posted by Lame_username at 10:00 AM on July 14, 2020

Another thing that is worth knowing about house transfers is that it's possible the deceased relative (sorry for your loss) may have already added them to the title if they were really on top of things. This would mean that the house transfers to the beneficiary basically without being part of the estate per se, since the beneficiary was also the sort of silent co-owner. I agree with others, it might be worth contacting the lawyer who drew up the will. There is a lot of nonsense that can happen, both by doing things too quickly (as yclipse notes) or too slowly (as Nelson states) so having a slightly disinterested third party kind of being on top of things is not really the worst thing. It's much harder for an executor to, say, take the house for themselves, than it is for them to just dragass through the process of either giving it to the beneficiary or, if there are other major outstanding bills, selling the house and delivering the remaining proceeds.
posted by jessamyn at 3:06 PM on July 14, 2020

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