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Anneke Kurt
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Can family members remove items from an estate without permission?

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Deaths in the family are commonly tragic and confusing events. Many questions can arise surrounding the estate, especially involving the items in and around the home of the deceased that are not included in a will. Our Toledo, Ohio estate planning attorneys understand the difficult questions surviving family members may have. Below is an excerpt from Attorney Dale Emch’s Toledo Blade column, “Legal Briefs,” which runs every other Sunday in the Living section:

Dear Dale: After someone dies, can members of his family remove items from his home without permission? The items taken from the home in this case were valuable in some cases and weren’t specifically included in the will. Is this against the law?

ANSWER: No one should remove items from a home of a person who has died until the executor or administrator of the estate gives approval.

When someone dies with a will, an executor is appointed to administer the estate. The executor has the duty and powers to settle the decedent’s estate according to the dictates of the will.

Part of the executor’s duties include getting an appraisal of the decedent’s personal property, which includes such things as a home’s furnishings, vehicles, bank holdings, stocks, and other belongings. The executor also must account for the decedent’s interest in real property, which includes things like land, commercial buildings, and homes.

Accordingly, an executor can’t stand by while a decedent’s personal property walks out the door as if it were suddenly up for grabs on a first-come, first-served basis. If, for instance, a big-screen television were specifically willed to someone, the executor has a duty to make sure that person gets the TV.

If, however, the television weren’t left to a particular person, it should be included in the general inventory of the estate. The executor can then decide whether to sell the television in order to convert it to cash for distribution according to the will or distribute it to a beneficiary in lieu of cash.

Therefore, preserving the property in the estate becomes crucial so that the executor can distribute the decedent’s property as dictated by the will. In some cases, executors secure a home so that the belongings inside can be preserved for appraisal and distribution.

As a matter of practicality, most wills aren’t specific enough to account for every television, chair, and tea cup, but that doesn’t mean that a friend or relative of the decedent can cart off belongings as if they were free.

You asked whether taking the property is against the law. Every situation would be different, but it’s certainly possible that someone taking property could be charged with burglary or theft. Ownership doesn’t go into limbo when someone dies – the property would belong to the estate of the decedent until it is distributed. So, if someone takes property that wasn’t willed to them or distributed by the executor, it’s possible that he or she has committed a crime.

The bottom line is that people have to exercise a little patience and common sense. In most cases, the executor is part of the family and families usually can work together to divide property in a way that’s acceptable to everyone. But bringing the trailer over to grandma’s and spiriting away the antique dresser you’ve always wanted definitely isn’t the way to go.