Finding Hidden Assets in Probate

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When someone dies, the law gives the decedent’s representative broad power and authority to look for and collect assets and gather information about debts. This process is known as probate administration. In Alabama, like most states, a person’s will controls a lot of that process. Without a will, the relevant probate laws determine how a person’s estate is administered. What about situations in which the assets can not be found, or an uncooperative relative is hiding potential assets? This is where an experienced probate lawyer can help.

The Role of the Representative

The representative is either an executor, named in the decedent’s will, or an individual who is permitted to be representative by the probate statute. This person has several primary obligations and duties.

  • Find assets
  • Find and notify creditors
  • Obtain assets
  • Pay debts
  • Distribute remaining assets to the heirs

Finding Hidden Assets

Some things are easy. Alabama lets you check for unclaimed property through a website. If a representative determines that a person is hiding or in some way concealing assets that should be part of the estate, he or she has a duty to do what is necessary to learn about the asset and obtain it for the estate. A common example is tangible property, such as family heirlooms, jewelry, and other easily obtained items. Let’s take a simple example that happens far more often than it should.

The Case of the Missing Rings

In this example, Barbara dies leaving three children, Judy, Suzy, and Bob. Barbara named Bob as the executor of the will. Her will says that “all jewelry shall be divided equally among my daughters, Suzy and Judy.” Bob believes there were at least five or six rings in his mother’s house at the time of death, but when he went to his mother’s home after death to perform an accounting and inventory, there was only a single ring. He called his sisters and asked about it. Judy advised that she thought there were more rings, as well. Suzy, however, tells Bob that “mom told me I could have all the rings. There were only three anyway, so I took two of them. You and Judy can work out who gets the other one.”

Possible Solutions

Bob has a problem. On one hand, the will makes clear that the rings should be equally divided, but it appears one of the heirs is not complying. Also, there is a possibility that Suzy is lying about the number of rings she took. Therefore, Bob will need to get a court order enforcing the will and compelling his sister to turn over the missing rings. This may require filing a citation, which is similar to a subpoena. It forces the person to undergo examination, which can be written or by testimony, in order to ascertain the whereabouts of the missing property. Likewise, a probate court has broad power to hold people in contempt or reduce their share of the inheritance by the value of the property taken.

Probate can Get Ugly Fast

While there are many mechanisms in place to protect the assets of an estate and uncover hidden items, it is important to recall that these cases often involve family. So, when considering how to best approach a probate case, one should always look for ways to avoid litigation and resolve matters amicably. No one wants to be involved in litigation against a sibling or other close relative.

Early Advice can Save Trouble Later

You have probably heard the expression, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Nowhere is this statement truer than probate and estate planning. A well-prepared estate plan can save a family a lot of drama and insecurity later.

If you are in charge of administering an estate, get the professional and focused help you need to handle even the most challenging questions that can arise. Five Points Law Group represents representatives of estates through Birmingham and surrounding areas of Alabama. Call (205) 352-4455 to speak with an attorney today.

 

Burton Dunn
Burton Dunn
Burton currently advises clients on their probate law, elder law and estate planning needs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans’ Affairs, estate and trust litigation matters, mental health issues, guardianships/conservatorships, and adoptions.

3 Comments

  1. I am glad you said that a well-prepared probate can prevent family drama later. My grandmother has an attorney to help write her will and last testament. I appreciate all the information about assets and probate.

  2. Avatar Sandra Royers-Scheve says:

    My mother was advised that she has only a 50% chance of being able to disinherit my two younger sibblings, even though they clearly deserve it.
    Is there a way to keep assets out of the trust ? She is 90 but in good health and her mind is sharp. If she put my good brother’s share in an irrevocable annuity, could that be contested? What else can she do while she is alive to insure her wishes are carried out?

  3. Avatar Amy Winters says:

    Thanks for pointing out that the representative of the estate is responsible for paying debts and distributing the remaining assets. My mother-in-law recently passed away and left a lot of complicated debt behind. I think we’ll simplify things for ourselves by hiring an attorney to help out.

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