Who controls the distribution of inheritance?

Amarlo asked...

When a person dies and they have left an appointed attorney and executor, who monitors the distribution of money and does the rest of the family have a right to know exact details of the finances when things don't look right? For example the attorney was only paid $3000 for a year's work and the executor, according to the paper we were given, took nothing for their services (this person has always been money hungry). The Probate Court states they have nothing to do with controlling what was in the estate account and where the money goes.

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

The executor named in a will is the one responsible for gathering and managing a deceased person's property, then distributing it as the will directs. While Probate Courts do not control individual estates or how property is distributed, they usually are the courts that hear and decide claims that an executor has abused power or mishandled probate property.

The numbers you mention are not alarming in themselves. Attorneys generally do not have an onerous amount of work to do in helping to wind up a simple estate, so a fee of $3,000 may be spot on for the work performed. And executors, especially if they are related to the deceased or were close friends, often agree to serve free of charge.

But if you have strong suspicions that some wrongdoing has taken place, you need to find out whether you are entitled to act"”and then decide whether to take action.

A preliminary step may be to do a little legwork. In most states, executors are required to file an inventory of property the deceased owned at death, any appraisals valuing that property, and a list of creditors' claims"”usually within 90 days or so after being appointed. That cursory accounting is usually a public document, so you should be able to see the information at the local probate court.

If this is the very documentation that you claim looks suspicious, then your next move may be to do a bit of legal research into the specifics of your state's law. Start with a search of the state name and "probate" and "executor ”and read the particulars of the law spelling out the executor's duties and who can contest alleged wrongdoing. . In many states, for example, only the people who would be legally entitled to take property from the deceased can file a claim. A warning here: Don't get sucked into any individual lawyer's website at this point; stick to finding out the law.

If you are entitled to know and remain convinced that there was wrongdoing, the actions you can take may range from demanding a formal accounting to asking that the executor be removed to requiring him or her to repay squandered funds. Realistically, you would likely need to hire an attorney for help with any of these steps, which will take time and money. So it is worthwhile to be sure your hunch of wrongdoing is on solid ground before you hire legal help.