My mother sold her house in 2009 and moved in with my sister. I was living abroad at the time. Our mother died in October last year. My sister, one of her daughters and myself were named as executors in her will. No one told me about this until my sister told me I had to sign a document to release the will to her. I returned to live in the UK in October.
I nearly signed away my right as executor as she wanted to do the probate herself, to save us money. My sister and I are the only beneficiaries of the will, but she refused to give me a copy of it or tell me what the final accounts were. When I didn’t sign the official renunciation of my executorship, she reluctantly sent me a copy of the will and two old savings accounts of my mother’s, with the account number blanked out.
I eventually discovered I was entitled to see my mother’s accounts for the past six years – she only used one bank. What I discovered shocked me more than I expected. There were various monthly outgoings to my sister and her daughter and a shortfall of £44,000 from the house sale, which seems unaccounted for.
My sister put my mother, who had dementia by then, into a home in about March 2012, but money was still coming out of her account as well (not just for the home fees). The bank advised me that my sister had been granted power of attorney a week before my mother’s death.
My sister and her daughter gave me notice that they were going ahead with probate without me, as I had not signed the renunciation form or communicated with them. I put a caveat in place that took effect before probate was granted.
Is there anything I can do to get some of the missing money back as my share of the estate? It looks as though my sister and her daughter have benefited from a lot of my mother’s money since the sale of my mother’s house (at a rough estimate, £60,000), and I have been kept in the dark and lied to.
Also, I have evidence that my mother’s bank card was used several times after her death.
R, via email
Your sister does not seem to have been transparent in her dealings with you. She may have acted to purposely defraud you, thinking you were out of the way, or else circumstances may have meant that things got out of control and now she can’t admit it. Or your mother may well have agreed, before she lost capacity, to these monthly outgoings. However, using someone’s cards after their death is criminal fraud.
On your behalf, I spoke to Richard Roberts, director of Gedye & Sons solicitors, and a specialist in wills and trust advice. He advises: “Yes, you can certainly ascertain what is missing. One of the jobs of the executor is to account to the Inland Revenue for money disposed of in the last seven years.”
“It could be,” says Roberts, “that your mother decided that it was right and proper to give your sister and niece some money, but your sister would need to show that your mother had independent legal advice that your mother spoke to the lawyer on her own and decided what to do with her money.” The onus is on your sister to prove this.
The ultimate course of action is court proceedings to get the money back to the estate. Roberts advises trying to sort things out before it gets to that and for the level of money you’re talking about, it is worth pursuing.
(If the estate was less than £20,000, up to half could go on legal fees.)
Roberts says: “It’s a two-stage process: your sister has to show what has happened to the money and then explain why.”
Roberts’ advice is, in the first instance, to ask a family member or friend who could act as a go-between for you and your sister, to try to sort this out. Otherwise, you could either instruct a lawyer (actaps.com) who specialises in wills, write a letter to your sister yourself, either requesting a meeting to ask for this information, or ask for it in the letter.
Your sister may feel you left her to look after your mother and that she is entitled to the money. This does not, of course, excuse her behaviour, but it might explain her mindset.
In the middle of all this is grief – yours and hers. I wonder what your relationship was like beforehand? Was it good? If so it seems a shame to fall out over this, if at all possible; you’d not only have lost your mother but also each other. Sometimes when people die, people cling on to material goods because it’s all that’s left.
What I would say to both of you is, try to make sure you are not trying to redress any inequalities you felt there were during your mother’s life.
First published in the Guardian Family section, 28 June 2013.