Keep grinches out of your estate property
December 10, 2017
Christmas is my favorite time of year. I like the music, lights, movies, and all the excitement I find in the faces of children. Even more than these, I love to see so much generosity, service, and unselfishness. However, even Christmas is not immune to human nature and bad behavior. Unfortunately, there are too many Grinches in the world and, left unsecured, even the personal property of the dead is not safe.
Grinches were discovered in my family a few years ago days after Christmas. My grandmother, Glade, passed away on the morning of Christmas Eve. It was a shock, and I certainly wasn't ready for her to leave this realm. Glade was such a sweet lady, and loved Christmas. She especially loved her annual Christmas chili party. Every December she would invite every relative, friend and acquaintance to her little home for chili, apple cider, beer bread and great stories. Even Santa Claus had become a regular visitor. Glade had a way of making everyone feel welcome in her home, and throughout the year her house was always open to anyone who had time to visit or was willing to bring her a hamburger.
Glade did not have much in the way of assets, but her personal property was of significant sentimental value to much of the family. For example, she had a signed letter from Rear Admiral William Parsons, assistant director of the Manhattan Project and weaponeer on the Enola Gay, thanking my grandfather for his involvement in preparing the bombs to be dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Unfortunately, Glade's openness had some negative repercussions. Her grandchildren had keys to the house and knew where she kept most things of value. In the days following her passing, my father and his siblings were consumed with preparation of Glade's funeral services. It was later discovered that during that time of mourning and preparation, a few of my cousins had welcomed themselves into Glade's home and had begun to sort, separate and take for themselves her personal property. By the time it was discovered, a good amount of personal property had been taken. Unlike the Grinch in Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, nothing taken was returned, and no one's heart was changed for the better. Rather, contention and feelings of betrayal emerged against those that had helped themselves. This was not what Glade would have wanted, nor is it anything she ever imagined would occur.
This sad story occurs all too frequently. Nevada law provides serious consequences for this kind of behavior. The criminal penalty for theft of property of an estate is dependent upon the value of the property taken and can range from a misdemeanor to a category B felony with a maximum term of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 on top of repayment of restitution. Additionally, a person that has taken property before a probate case is initiated is civilly liable for three times the value of the property taken.
Severe as the consequences may be, more can be done to dissuade and prevent a Grinch from thieving your property.
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First and foremost, upon a person's passing, the executor of an estate should immediately change the locks and secure the deceased person's residence. Additionally, the executor should contact neighbors and ask them to report any activity occurring at the residence.
Your will or trust also can prevent a Grinch from taking your property. A simple provision added to a "no contest clause" can be very compelling. A "no contest clause," by operation, disinherits anyone contesting the validity of a will or trust. The term "contest" can be expanded to include any removal or concealment of estate property prior to distribution of the estate. If beneficiaries are informed that the inappropriate removal or concealment of property could lead to their disinheritance, they will be far less likely to take or conceal belongings.
The best antidote for Grinchy behavior is communication. Make sure that your family understands that the person you have named as your executor is, at your death, in charge of all of your property. Additionally, make it clear that no one is entitled to any property until your executor decides that distribution is appropriate.
Keeping a Grinch out of your property right after your death will help keep your family of Whos together and unified and — like a Grinch that understands the meaning of Christmas — just maybe their hearts too will grow. Merry Christmas!
Michael G. Millward, Esq., is an estate planning and business attorney. Michael previously practiced with Cassandra Jones, Esq., at Heritage Law Group, and started his own firm, Millward Law, Ltd., in April of 2017. He is a resident of Douglas County, and practices in state and federal courts in Northern Nevada. He can be reached at 775-600-2776.