The Moneyist: My sister is selling our mother’s stuff and claims that she died without a will

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Dear Moneyist,

My mother passed away in May 2019.

I last saw my mother on Memorial Day Weekend. My sisters fought about how the staff at the hospice was caring for my mother. My mother was left in a comatose state. I was called to my mother’s bedside from Arizona on the Friday before she died.

My mother was in bad shape. She had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease after living for three years with my oldest sister in a dirty house and horrible conditions. She was left alone frequently. My sister was laid off from work and claimed it was because of our mother.

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A few days later, my older sister contacted me to say that our mom’s wishes were to be cremated and her ashes be distributed off the California coast. California law requires a permit that says ashes should be scattered at least three miles off the coast line. My sister said we had to pay for it!

I asked my sister if there was a will. She gave a brutal response in a threatening voice mail: “No will! No money!” She said that our mother had told her that there would be no inheritance for me. However, I understood my mother had made a will when she lived in Texas.

My sister is selling all of my mother’s belongings in the absence of a will. My oldest sister told my younger sister that our mother gave everything to her and that she would not have to worry about money every again. I don’t believe her. How should I proceed?


Dear Distraught,

It’s time to fight ire with ire. Or fire with fire. Either way, take action.

A person typically becomes power of attorney when a person is alive. But that responsibility ends when the individual who needs help dies. If there was a will, your sister would be executor of your mother’s will and there should be proof that you were cut out of the will. Without one, she is administrator of your mother’s estate.

Your mother cannot cut you out of a will that doesn’t exist. Even if a will did exist, your mother would have to explicitly disinherit you to avoid the will being challenged; otherwise, you could argue in court that your mother merely omitted to mention you. What’s more, your mother would also have to be of sound mind.

If you believe your sister is either incompetent or dishonest or both — it appears to be the case that she is both — file a petition with the probate court to say your sister is not distributing the assets of your mother’s estate. Your sister is not permitted under the law to sell your mother’s belongings or, indeed, plunder her bank account(s).

Also see: My sister told our father to change his will before he died, then forced my mother to sign over power of attorney

Is there a will? Your mother may have filed a will in the probate court in the county in Texas where your mother lived. You need to contact the probate court and the court clerk’s office with her and the date she died to see if there was a will that was filed in Texas or California. Sometimes, this can be done online. The court must then rule whether the will is valid.

You may also want to contact a family attorney or financial adviser, who should have information on life insurance, deeds of your mother’s home (if she owned one) and any retirement accounts. There should be information on her old bank accounts that could help. A policy locator service could also be useful for policies made after 1996.

I’m sorry that your mother was living in squalid conditions before she died. It’s difficult to know whether your sister was incapable of taking care of herself and/or your mother, or whether she acted out of malice or neglect. I can only speak to the law in California. All three sisters are legal heirs and your mother’s assets should be distributed equally.

You can counter your sister’s dubious moves with far more effective legal ones.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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