Penalty for Stealing From an Estate: What Is It?

When someone passes away, they leave behind an estate as well as a will and testament. In the will and testament, the recently deceased will have named someone the executor of the will. The executor is in charge of following through with all aspects of the will and dividing all assets that are a part of that estate to the necessary parties.

This means the executor closes the bank accounts of the recently deceased, gathers all of the titles to any property including, homes and cars, collects things like cash, jewelry, family heirlooms, and furniture so all of these items, as well as things like stocks or business ownership, can be distributed to the beneficiaries in accordance with the will.

However, there are times when an executor keeps things for themselves that they shouldn’t. An executor has legal access to bank accounts and cash, usually to cover final bills, final tax bills, any remaining medical bills or funeral costs. Access to things like this can make it very easy for people to steal from an estate.

Of course, executors are not the only people who can steal from an estate. There are many cases where a beneficiary does not like the final will and testament and will steal an inheritance or part of an inheritance from other beneficiaries.

For example: The Jones family consists of a father and three children. The father passes away, and leaves behind an art collection to the first child, all of the family jewelry to the second child, and family heirlooms and furniture to the third child. The second child requested certain family photos to which all the children agreed. However, when the second child went to get those requested family photos from the executor, the executor was unable to find them because one of the other children had stolen the photos after deciding they did not want the second child to have them. While many people might consider this a simple family matter, it is technically a crime.

Is Inheritance Theft a Crime?

Inheritance theft of estate assets or estate property is a crime. That means someone convicted of violating the legal regulations in a given state can face criminal charges in accordance with probate laws. In order to convict someone in Probate Court, you have to prove to a judge that they violated state’s laws as an executor or a beneficiary and have stolen money or funds from an estate.

Stealing from a Deceased Estate: What Can Be Taken?

Legally speaking, many things can be taken which qualify as stealing from a deceased estate. As mentioned, theft of deceased property can include:

  • Heirlooms
  • Furniture
  • Cash
  • Jewelry
  • Artwork
  • Antiques
  • Photos

These are the things that most people think of when stealing from an estate. However, there are other items that can be stolen in more unique ways, all of which still constitute a crime. For example:

  • Some people might steal undocumented loans, taking money from a deceased estate that they claimed was owed to them.
  • Some people might produce new wills at the last minute which contain different inheritances, wills that are forgeries.
  • Sometimes people will destroy the will, so instead of things being distributed as per the last wishes of the deceased, everything gets divided based on state laws.
  • In certain cases, money might be moved from the estate account into personal accounts for embezzlement.
  • Heirs might lie about one another to the executor to try and change the amount of money they inherit, especially if one heir lives very far away and is estranged or otherwise difficult to contact.

Inheritance Theft Laws You Need To Know

Every state has different inheritance theft laws, but they all come down to the same thing, you can file civil or criminal charges against someone who steals from an estate.

Inheritance theft laws give you a legal right to remove someone as the executor of an estate. If an executor steals assets from a beneficiary, you can get a court order, after working with a probate law firm, that requires the person who stole assets to return the stolen assets and cover any damages. Covering damages extends to legal fees associated with getting the stolen property back.

However, inheritance theft laws don’t just apply to executives. They also apply to beneficiaries. This means beneficiaries can be legally charged with stealing assets from an estate, especially if they steal things that were not part of their inheritance but rather intended for someone else.

What To Do If My Inheritance Was Stolen?

If your inheritance was stolen, you can work with an attorney and have them send a demand letter if you know who stole your inheritance. In many cases you might know who stole the item. In these cases, you can either follow through with a penalty for stealing from an estate or you can simply ask that they return the item to you in exchange for dropping all charges. In most cases, once an individual receives an official letter from an attorney, they will voluntarily return that property.

However, if they do not, you can take them to court. When your inheritance is stolen, and you have proof of this, your attorney can ask the court for a court order demanding that the stolen property be returned. In these cases, the court will typically issue a penalty for stealing from the estate and force the convicted individual to pay for any attorney fees and damages.

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What Happens When a Beneficiary Steals From the Estate?

When someone steals from an estate, the legal steps that are followed after and subsequently the penalties can either be:

  1. Civil 
  2. Criminal

This depends entirely on the items that were stolen, how they were  stolen, who stole them, and who brings the charges against the person who stole them.

For example, if you consider the example above, one family member might submit a petition through their attorney asking that the family photos be returned. If they are returned, then nothing happens, and no charges or penalties occur. This usually happens for smaller issues that can be handled internally. 

For larger issues, where a court order is involved, that represents a civil petition filed in court. As suc, the penalties are going to be civil penalties. Civil courts can only issue financial penalties, which means the individuals will have to return the stolen items and pay for damages.

Then there are criminal issues. Criminal issues come with criminal charges and criminal penalties. Depending on the severity of the situation, this can include jail time and significant fines. This typically has to do with things like forging a will, destroying pertinent documents, or embezzlement. Situations that involve criminal actions above and beyond petty theft might necessitate criminal actions by an attorney or the state.

There are many different things that can happen if someone steals from an estate. If an individual steals your inheritance or part of an estate, a court order can be issued forcing them to return it. There can also be extra charges in a civil matter.

If an executor is caught stealing, a judge will discharge them from their position and remove them as executor, appointing someone else.

How Do I Prove If Someone is Stealing From an Estate?

If you believe someone is stealing from an estate, you should consider speaking with an attorney. A trust litigation attorney or estate attorney can help you bring about a claim and file the right petitions in court. In order to prove someone is stealing from an estate, you need to gather evidence. In most cases, it’s easy enough to find a paper trail or witnesses for smaller, civil cases. You might, for example, find the stolen property in the home of another family member or friend after the inheritance has been distributed to the entire family. For more complicated criminal matters like embezzlement, you would need to find a paper trail that substantiates your claim. All this can be done with the help of a qualified attorney who knows what evidence needs to be gathered depending on the situation and how to best go about doing that.

Conclusions

Overall, stealing from an estate, whether money or property is a criminal act. People who steal from an estate might be beneficiaries, executors of the estate, or simply friends or coworkers of the deceased. No matter who it is, theft from an estate can either be a civil matter or a criminal matter, depending on what was stolen and how it was stolen. In these situations, the penalty can include not only having to return the stolen property and having to pay extra fees but potentially facing jail time. In the event that the theft is traced to the executor, penalties for stealing from an estate will include these items as well as being removed from the position of executor. If you believe items from an estate have been stolen it is best you consider reaching out to a trust litigation attorney who can advise you on the next steps.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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