The family home is a place of solace, memories, and place for the protection of family heirlooms and assets. It is also the frequent site of ransacking after the death of the home's owner. Such ransacking may be the product of serial burglars watching local obituaries for target victims. All too frequently, the ransacking is done by a family member with inside knowledge - what's in the safe, the location of vital documents, and the whereabouts of jewelry, silver and coin collections.
Here's the thing - if I didn't hear frequent stories of home ransacking, I wouldn't take the time to talk about it. The simple truth is that I hear these stories all the time - safes are emptied, critical documents lost and family heirlooms vanished. Within the last month or so, I've been told of a 400 lb. safe that within one day of the decedent's death was stolen in the dead of night from the decedent's home. That's not an easy item to move or hide.
In any event, you and I both know that an estate wrongdoer is not going to fess up and say that he took everything of value in mom's house that wasn't nailed to the floor. No - the more likely result is feigned ignorance.
So how do we deal with the ransacking of the home? Unfortunately, absent video or eyewitness evidence, the ability to prove the ransacker's identity is problematical. Moreover, there are usually little or minimal records of the decedent's personal property.
All that said, if a viable action against the wrongdoer might be brought and proven, the trial court is afforded some strong remedies. If a court finds that a person has in bad faith wrongfully taken, concealed or disposed of property belonging to an elder, a trust, or the estate of the decedent, the wrongdoer shall be liable for twice the value of the property recovered and may be liable for attorneys fees and costs. (Probate Code Section 859).
So what should be done? The home should be secured immediately, the locks changed and neighbors cautioned to look for and report any unusual activity. I know that in the depth of grief such actions may be difficult. The removal of assets for safekeeping elsewhere is also a possibility - done if only there is full accountability and transparency for what is removed.
At Hackard Law we bring cases of estate wrongdoing to California probate and civil courts, where we protect client interests - from Sacramento and Los Angeles to the Bay Area and San Diego. If you would like to speak with one of our experienced lawyers, call us at 916 313-3030. We'll be happy to listen to your story.