The Moneyist: ‘It’s like a Gothic novel.’ My mom had an aortic-aneurysm rupture — my sister moved into her home and, when our mother died, never moved out. Is it too late for justice?

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Dear Moneyist, 

My sister and I grew up being told repeatedly by our father that our parents’ modest estate would be divided between the two of us 50/50 when they were both gone. Primarily, the Hudson Valley mid-century modern we grew up in would be left to both of us and, if one of us wanted to live in it, she could buy the other one out. My dad died in 1990, leaving everything to mom as expected.

Shortly after that, my mom used some of the estate to purchase my sister, who was a single mom, a house in a neighboring town. (She paid the down payment, my sister paid off the mortgage.) In 2006, my mom had an aortic-aneurysm rupture, so my sister moved in. My mom did recover, but she was unable to walk. My sister, who has elder-care experience, rented out her other home. 

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I won’t go into the details of their life together and my sister’s influence over our mother. It’s like a Gothic novel. Although I did try to help take care of mom’s needs, my sister increasingly pushed me away over the years. In 2014, mom died. My mom was increasingly dependent on my sister in her last days, and never wanted to discuss anything that might upset her.

There had been talk of mom putting the house in my sister’s name so that they could get more assistance with her medical expenses. There came a point in time when I was no longer privy to any discussions. My mom had tried to convince my sister that the second, lesser house that my sister and mother purchased together should go to me, but my sister and her husband refused.

I was never told anything about any of the financial arrangements after my mother died. All I got was a phone call from my sister as I was returning home from the memorial service to another state where I now live. This was several days after we buried my mother. In that phone call, my sister said, “I just want to tell you that there is no money.” I was in too much pain to question anything.

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Six years later, my sister and her husband still live in the family house, rent the second one, and have purchased the property next door back from the relatives who had originally purchased it from my dad decades ago. So essentially my sister has three Hudson Valley, N.Y. properties (one of them is now on Airbnb). She would own none of these properties were it not for our folks.

I am happy for her, and all, but based on our earlier discussions this is not how my parents wanted their estate to be divided. Do I have any legal standing to ask for an accounting of the estate and what became of, say, my mom’s life-insurance policy, or other funds? I can’t quite get past feeling that there’s been an injustice here. Thank you for any insights you can offer.

Betrayed Sister

Dear Betrayed,

I hope you don’t mind me saying that it does not sound like you are happy for her. Many of our readers would probably feel the same.

This does sound like a classic 1700s Gothic tale: a big rambling house, an ailing matriarch dependent on her carer who, in turn, could be constantly looking over her shoulder at the vast expanse of land surrounding the property, and ruminating, ‘One day this will all be mine.’ It’s probably the oldest form of gift tax. But do we really know if this is the case? And, if so, is it so bad?

It’s hard to speak to the exact nature of their relationship. Was it healthy? Or did your sister exercise undue influence over your mother? I don’t know the answer. I do know that those who work to raise awareness of elder abuse and elder financial abuse say isolating the older relative is one of the first signs that there’s something seriously wrong. If that was the case here, I’m sorry for your mother.

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If your mom helped your sister with a deposit to buy her home, that’s not the same as buying her a house. It’s helping her buy her own house. Your sister kept up the mortgage payments and, while she probably had her sights set on your mother’s home too, a parent helping out a child with a deposit is far from unusual. Nor is it unheard of for a parent to give their home to the adult-child carer.

The longer you wait to file a case, the more difficult it becomes. There is a statute of limitations on challenging the distribution of an estate once it has gone through probate. In some states, it’s just six months. In others, it’s as long as a year. Unless your mother’s house was held in a trust for your sister, it would likely need to go through probate court in the county where they lived.

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I’m curious why you procrastinated over this for so long after your mother’s death. I have one outlandishly impertinent theory: By taking no action, there is always the possibility that — however remote — you could still come out of this fair and square. In actuality, that hope rapidly diminishes the more time that goes by. If your sister’s name is on the deed of the house, it’s likely game over.

Check the property records of your mother’s home and the probate court in the county where she lived. A family attorney could help you with the legwork. You should find most, if not all, of the answers you are looking for. It may be that the question you ask your sister is not, “What have you done?” Rather, “Why did you do it?” You may not like the answer, if one is forthcoming.

But making your voice heard and expressing your displeasure at how your sister handled things — especially in the weeks after your mother’s death — should, I hope, finally give you closure.

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