How to deal with relatives pilfering property of the recently-deceased

Most of us don't have to dig very far into our older relative's memories to uncover an ugly incident in which a relative of a just-deceased family member helped him or herself to an item, perhaps a diamond ring or a cherry chiffarobe, from the deceased's household, "just to remember him by." Such theft, in the midst of grieving, can create a family rift that a lifetime won't heal.

How can you avoid such a sordid scene at the death of a loved one that had lived alone? Ideally, the executor will take responsibility for the estate and plan for all eventualities. This is not always practical, though, if the executor lives at some distance. In that case, the executor should recruit another family member/friend/attorney to act on their behalf, both in preplanning and handling the property during the dying process and immediately after.

Preplanning begins, of course, with a valid will. But that is just the first step. Not many of us have full inventories of our household items, and who could say for sure that Grandma still had that Persian rug at the time of her death, or had, as a nephew claims, given it to him?

If your loved one (YLO) is willing, you could suggest he/she do a video will (if accepted in their state), or you could do a videotape inventory of the household occasionally for them, focusing on items of special value. Videotape your relative showing each special item, expressing his will about who he intends to have it after his death. While not legally binding, what relative would have the chutzpah to pilfer an item in light of this? Invite siblings to help, to avoid charges that YLO was manipulated into his decisions. Also find out, in confidence, where YLO stashes his mad money. Cash evaporates faster than dry ice.

Preplanning can also take place at a gathering of the descendents. While families often dance around the hard question of 'What after', posing it can be cathartic, and having each person express his expectations can reveal potential conflicts that should be resolved. Everyone should be made aware that a will exists, who the executor is, and that a full house inventory has been made.

Also find out from your loved one (YLO) if he has given keys to his domicile to others. If so, when YLO enters the hospital or other care facility and is no longer able to make decisions for himself, take steps to restrict access to your loved one's home. This might mean adding a second lock, or having the current one replaced. Ghoulish as it may sound, when relatives conclude that the loved one is on his deathbed, they don't hesitate to claim what they believe is due them.

Don't, however, remove items from the household yourself for 'safe-keeping'. You could create the kind of scene you intend to avoid.

After your loved one passes, minimize access to the household until an inventory can be completed. Do not, I repeat, do not hold a reception after the funeral in the house of your loved one, or allow the place to be used as a motel for those coming in for the funeral.

If this is unavoidable, gather all the valuables and secure them under lock and key, in a room of the house that can be locked. If a video inventory has not been done beforehand, do so now.

Finally, if the worst happens and cousin Clem ends up with the antique rocker meant for niece Vivian, try to remember that blood is thicker than water. And we all know how badly water can stain the finish on a nice rocking chair.

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