How can my sister get her property back from her deceased husband's son?

1 answer | Last updated: Nov 17, 2016
Doll66 asked...

Three weeks before my sister's husband died, his son had her taken to a hospital by reporting that she stated she would kill herself. The hospital didn't keep her for any period of time but she was in transport for some hours to one far away. During this time the stepson took his father, his father's personal items such as his truck, wallet, watch, some tools and lawnmower, along with my sister's personal lockbox with personal items including a retirement check that belonged to her husband that was somewhere near $20,000. He said he was taking care of his father against my sister's wishes and knowledge. She returned to their home to find everything, including her husband, gone.

The very next week she received notice that she was being evicted from the home which was owned by the company that the husband just retired from. They were behind on rent for two months, unbeknownst to her. So her losing the home was probably known to the son also. She lost everything and moved in with me. When the husband died a few days later, she was not able to be involved in the funeral arraingments or any else. Now she learns that her husband had a will which named the son as the executor but does not devote personal property or items. Since there was no real estate the son has not probated the will and says that all fund are exhausted so my sister is left with nothing. He also had power of attorney for those three weeks and named himself beneficiary to all health and life insurance policies and any assets were put into his name.

She was left with absolutely nothing and lives with me on $400 SSI a month and cannot afford a lawyer to handle this. Any suggestions on legal help for her or how to handle this issue would be greatly appreciated.

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a 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.

While my usual advice is to see a lawyer only as a last resort, in this rare instance, I would urge your sister to see a lawyer as quickly as possible. There's just too much at stake: loss of her home, money, and history. And there could be good substitute for getting an experienced body, mind, and pair of eyes on the situation.

Given the financial history you mention, your sister should be able to find free or low-cost legal help. She might best begin her search for an experienced estate planning or eldercare attorney by inquiring at the local state bar associations. Most of them now have websites that will help get her started; just type in the name of her state and "state bar."

If the website does not offer an easy way to search for low-cost legal services, do not hesitate to call and briefly explain the need to find a lawyer; you may also need to disclose your sister's income level and disability status. Depending on the type of claim that may be involved, a lawyer may be willing to represent your sister on a contingency basis--meaning rather than being paid upfront, he or she will get paid from the amount of money collected and will be paid only if the legal action is collected.

Your sister may also qualify for legal aid, often called legal services. Legal aid lawyers are usually government-funded lawyers who represent people with low incomes in a variety of legal situations, including eviction defense, denial of unemployment compensation or other benefits, and consumer credit problems. Encourage your sister to look in the telephone directory or ask a local attorney or lawyer referral service for the nearest legal aid office. Because of recent cutbacks in federal funding, you will probably find that legal aid is only available for relatively few types of legal problems and that in some programs waits for services can be long, but it is worth a try.

Finally, you and your sister can help hold down any legal costs involved and get the best results if you do some advance preparation.

She should arm herself with specific dates—such as when they were married and the length of his employment and with other specific information, such as the contact information for his former employer. She should also get copies of any contracts or legal documents that may be involved, such as rental agreements or insurance policies.