Dear Penny: Are My Sisters Cheating Me Out of My Inheritance?

Two women fight over money.
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Dear Penny,

My mother died this past year. Although her will originally stated that her assets were to be divided equally three ways between my two sisters and me, I got nothing. When I asked one of my sisters about this, she claimed that “there was nothing left” despite my mother having had hundreds of thousands of dollars not long before. I wasn’t even invited to the reading of the will. How do I legally challenge my sisters?


Dear D.,

Readings of a will make for great TV, but they seldom happen in modern-day real life. These dramatic scenes have a grain of truth in that they were more common back when literacy rates were lower. But today, no state requires a reading of a will.

Instead, the executor files the will in probate court and notifies beneficiaries, as well as any creditors of the decedent. But it doesn’t sound like that happened here.

Dear Penny

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It’s possible that your mother’s estate had no money left even if she had a decent nest egg not long before her death. For example, an extended stay in a nursing home can quickly deplete a person’s assets in their final months. Or if someone dies with significant debt, there may be little to nothing left over after creditor claims are paid. But even if the estate was found to be insolvent, you still should have been notified as part of the probate process.

Of course, it’s also possible that one or both of your sisters are hiding something. All of this is speculation. But if either of them was named the executor, it’s possible that they stole or mismanaged funds from your mother’s estate. Or that they stole money from your mother while she was still living.

Another possibility is that your mother updated her will and didn’t include you as a beneficiary. Sometimes people do this for personal reasons. But unfortunately, sometimes family members manipulate older people into changing their will to get a bigger inheritance. This is a common reason for challenging a will.

I’m curious whether you’ve actually seen a copy of the will. Since wills become part of the public record, you can probably get one through the clerk of the court’s office in the county where your mother resided when she died.

Keep in mind, though, that while obtaining your mother’s will can confirm whether you were a beneficiary, it won’t give you the full picture. For example, if you believe your sister mishandled funds, you may need accounting statements. Property that passes through beneficiary designation — like trust assets, retirement accounts, life insurance proceeds and bank accounts with a payable on death designation — bypasses probate altogether and typically doesn’t become part of the public record. But at the very least, you could confirm whether you were a beneficiary.

I’m not sure whether you’re currently in contact with your sisters. If there’s still a relationship, you could ask the sister who told you there was nothing left if she can provide documentation to back up her claims. If she was the estate executor, she would have had to submit records showing any claims the estate paid out, as well as any income it received. I’d consider it a red flag if she hesitates or claims she doesn’t have any records. If your sister wasn’t the executor, ask her for the source of the information.

Here’s where you’re not going to like my answer: If you think you might legally challenge your sisters, you need advice from a probate attorney, not from a non-attorney advice columnist. I have no idea whether you have grounds to legally challenge your sisters. But please don’t delay meeting with an attorney because you’ll have fewer options as time passes.

If your sister was the executor and you believe she hasn’t fulfilled her duties, you may be able to ask the court to appoint a new executor if the estate is still in probate. If you believe either of your sisters could have stolen your mother’s money, you’d want to discuss your suspicions as well. It may also be possible to contest the will if you were written out of it, but only in limited circumstances, such as you believe that your mother lacked the capacity to make changes to her will or was improperly influenced. Each state has different rules, but you typically have a limited amount of time for doing so.

Be warned that probate challenges can be expensive and difficult to win. But a consultation with an attorney will help you better understand what your rights are and whether you have a case.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].