One common tactic employed by perpetrators of fraud in estate and probate cases is to hide documents. If key estate documents like a will or trust suddenly “disappear,” the wrongdoer believes, the rights of lawful beneficiaries will also supposedly be cancelled out. For an example of this game of estate “hide-and-seek,” truck accident lawyer and estate attorney Jimmy Romano has come up with a hypothetical story based on real circumstances he comes across in everyday estate law.
Three adult children learn of the death of their father, “Bob,” from cancer. The news of Bob’s passing comes as no surprise, since he had been suffering from cancer. In the year before his death, Bob had outlined how to divide his property and assets among his children in a living estate. After Bob dies, however, the children don’t receive what was promised them according to estate documents. Not only that, but Bob’s widow “Betty,” their stepmother, begins claiming the children’s rightly inherited property, from vehicles and heirlooms to valuable real estate, as her own.
When Bob’s kids try to talk to their stepmother Betty about properly distributing the estate assets, she denies Bob’s original wishes for his family. The children then point to Bob’s will, which specifically delineates the division of the estate among them. That’s when Betty goes so far as to hide Bob’s will, lying that she doesn’t know where it went, and that it must have gotten “lost” in the shuffle after his passing. Betty thinks she’s in the clear, that she can now enjoy Bob’s estate for herself without having to fulfill her late husband’s actual intentions.
What Betty doesn’t realize is that the law will ensure she’s caught in her own lie: Probate Code Sections 8870-8873 allow for parties in an estate dispute to be summoned to court and be examined under oath. Should they attempt to evade this summons, their actions can be equated to contempt of court with all the consequences that entails. If wrongdoers like Betty have stolen, concealed, or sold estate property that wasn’t rightfully theirs, they could soon have the light of truth shining on them in a court of law. So to all the bad actors out there who think they’re going to get away with concealing estate documents: we’ll just see about that.