I think my sister is cheating the rest of us out of my mother's will, what should we do?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My sister is the Trustee of my deceased mothers Revocable living Trust. My mother passed away Nov 20 2010. My sister has told us that she is keeping the house(my mother wanted it sold and divided up amongst us 3)My sister has stopped calling us. we dont know if my mom had a life insurance policy or what is in her bank accounts. We just found out through an assecors office she filed for the deed to my moms house without telling us. We since retained a probate lawyer. Shes not be accountable to us or telling us whats going on. we think shes cheating us.We put a stop to the Deed through our probate lawyer. Im sick over this cause i know when this is all over our relationship will be no more am I doing the right thing?

Expert Answer

Judy and Fred co-mediate family property and financial conflicts, and each work individually as mediators as well. Judy Barber, a mediator and family business consultant, assists clients in resolving overlapping family and money conflicts so they are better able to make sound estate planning decisions. Frederick Hertz is an attorney and mediator who specializes in resolving co-ownership matters involving families, siblings, spouses, cohabitants and domestic partners.

Question: I think my sister is cheating the rest of us out of my mother's will, what should I do?

Answer from Frederick Hertz and Judy Barber

There are two dimensions to this problem: the legal and the inter-personal. We urge you to approach the challenges with both dimensions in mind, so you can be most effective.

On the emotional side, you are troubled by your sister's behavior and also worried about whether you are doing the right thing. We suggest you reach out to your sister with the hope of understanding why she is managing the estate in this way. In our experience, we often see this level of family discord after the death of a parent when underlying family issues have not been addressed during the parent's lifetime. Write a letter to your sister, not an email, as it is too easy for her to delete or reply with a negative reaction rather than a thoughtful response.

Let her know you genuinely want to understand why she is managing the estate in this manner? Is it related to past family behavior? Does she feel she was slighted or treated unfairly growing up? Does she feel that she had more household responsibilities than you and your sibling or that, in some way; she sacrificed her life for the family? Do these or other experiences contribute to her feeling entitled to the residue of your mother's estate? If your sister responds, suggest the three of you talk with a therapist to explore the unspoken experiences behind this family estrangement. We have found that many families who have these, often difficult and productive discussion are better able to resolve estate issues because they have talked about childhood relationships. If she does not respond and continues to be uncommunicative about the estate, you will both know, as you move through the legal procedures that you made the effort to reach out to her.

Regarding the legal matters, it is clear to us that your sister is not fulfilling her legal obligations as trustee of your mother's trust. She has a duty to provide you with all of the relevant information, and she has a duty to act in accordance with your mother's wishes. If your mom didn't include express directions about selling the house, then the probate court may have to rule on the issue of what is in the best interest of all of you. You didn't say to whom your sister transferred the property in the deed she tried to record, so you would want to clear that up as well. And, we're quite sure the local court would mandate regular reports from your sister. If she doesn't improve her performance or abide by the court's instructions, at some point it may be necessary to ask the Judge to appoint someone else as trustee. In situations like this if often is best to appoint a private independent trustee, rather than another family member, as this will guarantee a neutrality that will help avoid future conflicts.

Our primary suggestion is that you instruct your lawyer to move towards a court remedy, in a deliberate but measured fashion. At the same time, take every opportunity to build the family bridges on the personal side. One way or another, there will be a resolution, and hopefully it will involve the least amount of legal intervention.