Many families have conflicts, and when a loved one dies, that conflict can be exacerbated. When it comes time to handle the decedent’s estate, an inventory of all personal property must be taken to report to the Court.

Sometimes, disgruntled family members take it upon themselves to take personal property before an inventory can be completed.

This can result in valuable items of property such as furniture, jewelry, family heirlooms, and/or cash going missing. The stolen items of property may have been willed to specific beneficiaries or may have needed to be sold to pay the decedent’s debts. This is incredibly important because, in estate administration, the personal representative is responsible for preserving assets and distributing them appropriately.

For example, Mildred dies and leaves a Will that specifically leaves all jewelry to be divided equally amongst her four children, Robin, Ronald, Richard, and Rebecca. Rebecca, the personal representative, begins an inventory of the decedent’s belongings and notices that a large portion of the jewelry is missing, including two necklaces that Rebecca loved and hoped she would get. Rebecca calls her siblings to ask about the jewelry. Ronald and Richard inquired about their late father’s military rings, which Rebecca discovers are also missing. Robin admitted to taking two of the military rings but said that their mother got rid of a lot of her jewelry before she passed. Rebecca, knowing that is false, decides to contact an attorney.

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In cases of improperly taken property, the involvement of an attorney and the Court system can assist in recovering the stolen or missing items.

To hopefully avoid taking the matter to Court, an attorney can work with the disgruntled family members to create a process to recover the property that was taken and assist in the proper distribution of assets. With family, it is usually best to settle issues as amicably as possible.

However, more challenging cases may require the Court’s involvement. In North Carolina, a personal representative or other interested parties can file an action in court against any person believed to have the property of any kind belonging to the estate of the decedent to try and get the Court to order its return.

They can also demand the recovery of the property. This is done by filing a verified petition and having a hearing in front of a judge. During the hearing, which is in all respects a trial, the evidence is taken, and a judge will decide whether the person is in possession of the property wrongfully. The judge will also decide whether or not to issue an order directing the return of the property.

The order may also threaten jail time for non-compliance if the property is not returned. The threat of jail time can be a powerful motivator to return improperly taken items. However, when these disputes are happening among family members, it can be complicated. It is essential to consider the matter as a whole to determine whether this type of action serves the best interest of the estate and the family and whether there are less aggressive measures that can be taken to avoid the conflict that may arise out of this type of proceeding.

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