Penalty for Stealing From an Estate: What Is It?

Updated October 27, 2023
11 min read
Penalty for Stealing From an Estate: What Is It?

When someone passes away, they leave behind an estate as well as a will and testament. In the will and testament, the recently deceased will have named someone the executor of the will. The executor is in charge of following through with all aspects of the will and dividing all assets that are a part of that estate to the necessary parties.

This means the executor closes the bank accounts of the recently deceased, gathers all of the titles to any property including, homes and cars, collects things like cash, jewelry, family heirlooms, and furniture so all of these items, as well as things like stocks or business ownership, can be distributed to the beneficiaries in accordance with the will.

However, there are times when an executor keeps things for themselves that they shouldn’t. An executor has legal access to bank accounts and cash, usually to cover final bills, final tax bills, any remaining medical bills or funeral costs. Access to things like this can make it very easy for people to steal from an estate.

When someone passes away, they leave behind an estate as well as a will and testament. In the will and testament, the recently deceased will have named someone the executor of the will. The executor is in charge of following through with all aspects of the will and dividing all assets that are a part of that estate to the necessary parties.

This means the executor closes the bank accounts of the recently deceased, gathers all of the titles to any property including, homes and cars, collects things like cash, jewelry, family heirlooms, and furniture so all of these items, as well as things like stocks or business ownership, can be distributed to the beneficiaries in accordance with the will.

However, there are times when an executor keeps things for themselves that they shouldn’t. An executor has legal access to bank accounts and cash, usually to cover final bills, final tax bills, any remaining medical bills or funeral costs. Access to things like this can make it very easy for people to steal from an estate.

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What Happens When a Beneficiary Steals From the Estate?

When someone steals from an estate, the legal steps that are followed after and subsequently the penalties can either be:

  1. Civil;

  2. Criminal.

This depends entirely on the items that were stolen, how they were stolen, who stole them, and who brings the charges against the person who stole them.

For example, if you consider the example above, one family member might submit a petition through their attorney asking that the family photos be returned. If they are returned, then nothing happens, and no charges or penalties occur. This usually happens for smaller issues that can be handled internally. 

For larger issues, where a court order is involved, that represents a civil petition filed in court. As such, the penalties are going to be civil penalties. Civil courts can only issue financial penalties, which means the individuals will have to return the stolen items and pay for damages.

Then there are criminal issues. Criminal issues come with criminal charges and criminal penalties. Depending on the severity of the situation, this can include jail time and significant fines. This typically has to do with things like forging a will, destroying pertinent documents, or embezzlement. Situations that involve criminal actions above and beyond petty theft might necessitate criminal actions by an attorney or the state.

There are many different things that can happen if someone steals from an estate. If an individual steals your inheritance or part of an estate, a court order can be issued forcing them to return it. There can also be extra charges in a civil matter.

If an executor is caught stealing, a judge will discharge them from their position and remove them as executor, appointing someone else.

How Do I Prove If Someone Is Stealing From an Estate?

If you believe someone is stealing from an estate, you should consider speaking with an attorney. A trust litigation attorney or estate attorney can help you bring about a claim and file the right petitions in court. In order to prove someone is stealing from an estate, you need to gather evidence. In most cases, it’s easy enough to find a paper trail or witnesses for smaller, civil cases. You might, for example, find the stolen property in the home of another family member or friend after the inheritance has been distributed to the entire family. For more complicated criminal matters like embezzlement, you would need to find a paper trail that substantiates your claim. All this can be done with the help of a qualified attorney who knows what evidence needs to be gathered depending on the situation and how to best go about doing that.

Conclusion

Overall, stealing from an estate, whether money or property is a criminal act. People who steal from an estate might be beneficiaries, executors of the estate, or simply friends or coworkers of the deceased. No matter who it is, theft from an estate can either be a civil matter or a criminal matter, depending on what was stolen and how it was stolen.

In these situations, the penalty can include not only having to return the stolen property and having to pay extra fees but potentially facing jail time. In the event that the theft is traced to the executor, penalties for stealing from an estate will include these items as well as being removed from the position of executor. If you believe items from an estate have been stolen it is best you consider reaching out to a trust litigation attorney who can advise you on the next steps.

Article by
Alina Kalyna
Lawrina

Alina Kalyna is the Content Specialist at Lawrina. With her experience in content creation, Alina is adept at producing comprehensive and engaging content across various platforms. Her role at Lawrina involves generating high-quality content for the blog, guides, and other materials.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the penalty for stealing from an estate?

The penalty for stealing from an estate is largely dependent on applicable state laws. Generally, it falls under the category of theft and can be subjected to civil and criminal charges. Penalties can include fines, restitution payments to the estate, probation, or jail time. The severity of the punishment typically correlates with the value of the stolen property.

When can actions be considered as stealing from an estate?

Stealing from an estate is often referred to as estate fraud, which normally occurs when someone tampers, modifies, or outright steals assets before they are officially distributed as per a decedent's will or state intestacy laws. This can include stealing physical possessions or mismanaging, hiding, or illegally taking control of financial assets or property.

How can you report theft from an estate?

If someone suspects theft from an estate, he or she can usually file a complaint with the probate court overseeing the estate. The person may also contact a lawyer to help them make their claim or perhaps report directly to the police. Each jurisdiction may have its specific protocols, so it’s advisable to consult with a local attorney.

How does the court investigate claims of theft from an estate?

The court or a court-appointed representative investigates these claims often by reviewing the estate’s accounting records and documents, hearing testimonies, and examining any other presented evidence. The process can vary by jurisdiction and the specific facts of the case.