My mother passed away three months ago after a long and horrible decline due to dementia. This devastated me and my immediate family. I also had to leave my job during this time. My mother passed away less than a month after being moved to a memory-care unit, and I am still in the depths of grief. Her sisters and their children came to the funeral.
My extended family felt entitled to look through my mother’s paintings, her purses, her jewelry and everything else.
One cousin even took one of my mother’s designer purses to give to her sister (who did not come to the funeral) because the cousin felt bad about not sharing the inheritance she got from her grandmother with her sister (another long story).
If I said anything about how tasteless this was or how it was hurting me, they brushed me off as greedy and overly sensitive. One of my aunts currently has eight paintings from my mother’s house hanging in her house, if this gives you an idea of the extent of things. I have worked to accept and get over it. However, recently things have really escalated.
My father has money. I do not. I live paycheck to paycheck due to the high cost of rent and my student-loan debt — not to mention my recent jobless situation (I did recently start a new job). My aunt and her boyfriend recently visited my father at his condo in Florida. Dad mentioned to them that I was getting my mother’s car, as my car is old and starting to be unreliable.
“‘My aunt’s boyfriend contacted me, asking me what I wanted to do with my current car.’”
My aunt’s boyfriend contacted me, asking me what I wanted to do with my current car, given that I was taking my late mother’s automobile. I honestly had not given it much thought, and I was a little taken aback. He also messaged me on Facebook telling me to call him urgently — which caused me to panic, as I was worried something was now wrong with my dad.
The boyfriend said his sister was having financial difficulties and needed a new car. He then asked me how much I wanted for my car. Being a people pleaser and worried that I would be judged if I asked for what I could get for the car at market, I said they could have it. A few days later, I told him he could not have the car and apologized for saying he could.
The next morning, I woke up to an onslaught of texts and a call from another aunt (Aunt #2), a sister of the the aunt who is dating the man who asked for my car. Aunt #2 texted me to say I was unkind and needed to explain why I decided to not give my car away for free, and that Aunt #1 was sobbing. Aunt #2 lectured me on not going back on my word (I’m 33).
Am I crazy, or am I being emotionally preyed upon and coerced? Am I in the wrong if I tell them I do not owe them the car?
Contact an estate-planning attorney and a locksmith. If your parents are divorced and you are the only surviving child, your mother’s estate goes to you under intestate law — that is, if there is no will. It’s not only unethical for your cousin or aunt to plunder her house for valuables, it’s also illegal. They are trespassing and they are pilfering assets that should go through probate.
If there was a will, your mother may have filed it in the probate court in the county where she lived. Contact the probate court and the court clerk’s office with the date she died to see if a will was filed. Sometimes this can be done online. The court will then rule whether the will is valid. If there is no will and you are her only child, the estate belongs to you.
You may also want to contact a family attorney or financial adviser to find out about life insurance, deeds to your mother’s home, if she owned one, and any retirement accounts. There should be information about her old bank accounts that could help, including statements mailed to her home. A policy locator service could be useful for policies made after 1996.
Who is the executor or trustee of this estate? If it is a family member who has already taken items from your late mother’s house, that person can and should be removed from their role. There should be a thorough inventory of your late mother’s assets as part of probate. If probate is ongoing, these items were not yours or theirs to take at this point, and they should be returned.
Inheritance theft and embezzlement is, sadly, all too common. Family members often take it upon themselves to rummage through a deceased person’s house, taking everything from jewelry to automobiles and anything else they believe they are entitled to. This is your inheritance, and these relatives are vultures and bullies. Report this looting to your attorney.
And now, listen to me very carefully, and repeat after me: You do not owe anyone anything. You do not owe your relatives an explanation. You are not obliged to explain your mother’s estate. You don’t have to answer your phone. (That’s why the tech gods of Silicon Valley invented the “block” button.) People can’t make you feel bad or guilty. That is your choice. Choose freedom.
“‘If the executor or trustee is a family member who has already taken items from your late mother’s house, that person can and should be removed from their role.’”
Your relatives may see you as someone who can be easily manipulated, blackmailed, cajoled, coerced or — as is also the case here — robbed. Just because it happens brazenly, shamelessly and in plain sight does not make it anything other than what it is: Your family members are stealing from your mother’s estate. They are stealing your inheritance.
Requesting your car is the cherry on top. You’re 33. If you don’t start standing up for yourself now, you will spend your life being pushed around. You can tell people to back off. Simply say: “I just lost my mother. This is a difficult time for me and I need you to stop calling me.” If you receive more calls and Facebook messages, press the aforementioned “block” button. No explanations needed.
You can’t reason with self-interested, greedy and opportunistic people. You can talk to them, and they will talk rings around you because they don’t subscribe to the social contract — where we listen to the wishes of other people, have healthy boundaries and choose to respect the difference between what is our property and what belongs to another person.
Finally, stop telling people your personal business. That includes your father, who clearly cannot keep information confidential. If relatives or friends ask you questions about what you own and what you are going to do with your mother’s belongings, tell them it’s in the hands of your estate attorney and it’s private.
Don’t do things because you want to be liked or because you are afraid of angering people. That will keep you hostage to other people’s questions, whims and demands for the rest of your life. Your life will no longer be yours. It’s better to be strong and to like yourself than to always acquiesce to others who are only thinking about themselves.
You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at email@example.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.
Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.
The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.
More from Quentin Fottrell:
‘My sister is always struggling with money and drugs’: I own a house with my husband and mother. Should we cut my sister out of the family inheritance?
My ex-partner demanded that I pay 50% of our daughter’s medical expenses. He earns 3 times my salary. Is that fair?
‘I feel very hurt’: My late wife’s parents cut me out of their will — and reduced my daughter’s inheritance. We’re being punished after I remarried. What do we do?
When Angela Myrons’ mother passed away unexpectedly from cancer last summer her grief quickly turned to disagreements amongst her family over who gets what from the estate. This unusual and passionate dispute between family members has even caught the attention of The Moneyist, a financial advice columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
Angela’s mother was an artist and collector of exquisite designer bags, owning over 100 at the time of her death. In the days following her mother’s death, Angela’s cousin approached her offering to purchase one of the designer bags, but Angela refused, believing it should stay with the family. Later, Angela found out that her cousin left with the purse in tow, and this was the start of a series of altercations among family members over who deserves what.
More recently her aunt, who was the closest to her mother, took eight paintings from her mother’s home without consulting the rest of the family. With no will in place, the rest of the family was left up in the air as to who should receive what is purportedly left of her mother’s estate.
Angela is tolerant of her family’s behavior at the same time being perplexed as to why a relatively small issue erupted into major arguments and divisions between her family which has magnified the grief she is already dealing with. “(Am I crazy?) I’ve been thinking, why would my aunt and cousin choose to create a great deal of drama and pain on top of the fact that we are all grieving?” she said in a statement.
The Moneyist provided Angela with advice to resolve the dispute, first by creating a will. He also instructed Angela to appoint a lawyer to navigate the financial matters associated with her mother’s estate in order to provide the family with concrete guidelines to make sure everyone has a fair chance to her mother’s legacy. Resolving the disagreements amongst family members may help ease the tension and extraordinary grief Angela is dealing with following her mother’s loss.