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Dying Without a Will Can Leave Your Estate Vulnerable to Unscrupulous Relatives

If you die without leaving a last will and testament, your estate may be left at the mercy of unscrupulous relatives who will take advantage of the situation. While California law does provide for cases of intestacy–estates where the deceased left no will–relatives without legal knowledge may be unaware of their right to inherit part of your estate. That’s why it’s important to work with an experienced San Diego estate planning attorney who can help you and your relatives prepare a will that, hopefully, keeps everyone out of court after you pass on.

Taking Advantage of Intestacy

A recent case from the California Court of Appeals shows what may happen when relatives exploit the confusion that can arise from an intestate estate. (Please note this case is only discussed here for illustrative purposes and should not be taken as a definitive statement of current California law.) David Mack left an estate valued at approximately $700,000. He died without a wife, children or will, so California intestacy law required the division of his estate among his living siblings and the heirs of any previously deceased siblings.

Since there was no will naming an executor, Mack’s great niece, Tina McGlorie, and her cousin, Henry Hunter, filed a petition with the probate court to gain control of the estate. McGlorie and Hunter told the court that Mack’s only other surviving relatives were a brother and sister, who had one child each. After the court granted McGlorie and Hunter’s petition, they convinced the siblings to “assign” their interest in Mack’s estate to them. Thus, McGlorie and Hunter claimed to be Mack’s sole heirs, and the court allowed them to divide the estate equally between themselves.

As it turned out, Mack had other living relatives, including as many as ten nieces. One of those nieces, Leveda Jackson-Jones, asked the probate court to reverse its earlier order distributing Mack’s estate to McGlorie and Hunter. Jackson-Jones accused the two executors of “extrinsic fraud” by never informing the other heirs that there ever was a probate proceeding. Jackson-Jones said she didn’t learn about the estate’s distribution until after the fact.

Too Little, Too Late

Unfortunately, Jackson-Jones waited too long to object. The court approved the distribution of Mack’s estate in 2003. Jackson-Jones said nothing until 2009, when she wrote a letter to the probate court asking it to reopen the estate. But another two years elapsed until she filed a formal petition. While the probate court acknowledged the executors probably committed fraud, the judge found there was no excuse for Jackson-Jones’ delay in seeking relief. In fact, there was evidence that Jackson-Jones was aware of the original probate proceeding in 2003, eight years before she took action. The probate court said it could not alter its final decision after such an unreasonable delay. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court’s decision in May of this year, finding it acted well within its discretion to deny Jackson-Jones’ petition.

Take Control of Your Estate

A key lesson from the Mack estate litigation is that when you fail to make a will, the first relatives to the courthouse door might end up with control of your estate–to the detriment of other potential heirs. A will enables you to decide who should be entrusted with the duty and responsibility of serving as executor. It’s important to select an executor who will deal fairly and equitably with all persons who might have an interest in your estate. If you’re looking for assistance in drafting a will and selecting an appropriate executor, please contact the Law Offices of Scott C. Soady today.

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