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What Happens When Children Fight Over a Parent’s Estate?

You may think estate planning is unnecessary because California intestacy law automatically provides for the distribution of assets to your heirs, but intestacy law does not eliminate the need for an estate. Someone must still take responsibility for administering those assets and ensuring your heirs receive their fair share. Even when dealing with family members, this can fail to happen, leading to years of costly and unnecessary litigation.

Brothers Attempt to Exclude Sister from Father’s Estate

Here is a recent example from here in California. This case involves a man who died nearly 24 years ago without a will. Under California intestacy law, his three surviving children-two sons and a daughter-were entitled to equal shares of his estate. The estate itself included over 760 acres of timber property.

In the absence of a will nominating an executor, the probate court appointed one of the sons as administrator of the estate. Rather than sell the land and distribute the proceeds to his siblings, he decided instead to continue managing the property through the estate. According to court records, during this time he “did not communicate with his sister [], failed to file an accounting, failed to cooperate with or contact his attorney, and evaded service of citations to appear in court.” Seven years after his father’s death, the probate court suspended the son as administrator.

Even after this suspension, the son continued to control-and ultimately sell-the property without informing his sister, who was now the court-appointed administrator. The son refused to provide any accounting of the estate until 2011, some 20 years after the estate was opened. The accounting itself was riddled with problems. The probate court later determined the son failed to list the estate’s liabilities, primarily loan debt and back taxes owed on the timber property dating back to the father’s death. Nor did the son properly document expenses he allegedly paid on behalf of the estate.

The probate court held a trial in 2012 to determine whether the son owed the estate any money for his mismanagement. Sadly, the judge ordered a mistrial after the court learned the son had killed himself at some point before the trial began. The case continued against the son’s estate, which was administered by the surviving brother.

After a second trial, the probate court concluded the two brothers effectively ran the father’s estate for their own benefit to the exclusion of their sister. The court ordered a $260,000 surcharge against the son’s estate, which wiped out his share of the inheritance from the father’s estate. And, more than two decades after the father’s estate began, the court ordered a final distribution, dividing the four remaining properties between the sister and her surviving brother.

Need Help With a Will?

As the case above illustrates, it is generally a bad idea to leave an estate with significant property assets to the whims of your heirs. A will allows you to not only decide how your estate is distributed, but also who will likely be the most responsible person to carry out your wishes. If you need help in preparing or revising a will from a qualified California estate planning attorney, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today.

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