My mother left quite a large estate which included many valuable pieces of jewelry. My sister and her daughters have gone through the jewelry and taken several items even though we haven’t been through probate. Can we decrease her share of the estate by the estimated value of the jewelry?
Assuming that this estate is subject to probate, no items should be removed from the estate until the probate process is completed. The personal representative of the estate has the responsibility of accounting to the court for the accurate distribution of all estate property. The personal representative will either be referred to as the Executor (if the person who passed away had a Will) or as the Administrator (if the person who passed away did not have a valid Will). It is very important that the personal representative protects the property and distributes it properly, either according to the terms of the Will or the NC Intestacy Statutes. If not, the personal representative can potentially be held personally liable for the property.
In this case, the first and most simple step to deal with the problem would be for the personal representative to have a conversation with the sisters and her daughters about the jewelry, and ask them to return it. They may not understand the probate process or why it is important that they leave the items until the estate has been probated. If explaining this doesn’t work, the personal representative must still account to the court for the distribution of the estate property, including the jewelry and any other items removed from the home. The terms of the Will (or the NC Intestate Succession Statutes) must be followed when distributing the property. Personal representatives should never attempt to “redistribute” property on their own because of what they believe has already been taken.
In order to avoid personal liability, the personal representative in this situation should consult with an attorney before opening probate and making distributions. Having an attorney advise the personal representative and explain the process sufficiently to the beneficiaries may also avoid family feuds and preserve relationships in the process.
Casey N. Ferri
Attorney at Law