The Moneyist: My grandmother and uncle destroyed my late grandfather’s will—and put the wrong date on his headstone

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Dear Moneyist,

I am concerned that my family is money hungry. My grandfather passed away and my uncle who lives overseas and my grandma took all the money out of my grandfather’s bank account in less than 24 hours and put it in a bank account with only my uncle’s and grandma’s names on the account.

My grandma and uncle are usually very precise with everything they do and my grandparents were married for 65 years, so it’s not like she forgot or didn’t notice. My mom found insurance checks written by my grandfather, but my grandma and uncle said there were no such thing—and now they are hiding over a million dollars.

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My grandmother had four children, and she and one of her sons decided to do this without saying a word to the rest of the family. The date of birth written on my grandfather’s tombstone did not match the actual date. How does that happen? They still haven’t fixed it.

My mother lived in the family home with my grandparents the longest out of all of her four children and she was blindsided. My uncle and grandma went down to the court house to make sure they were the only next to kin on the documents. My uncle is now selling my grandfather’s house and is keeping the money and there is no will because my grandmother destroyed it. I just don’t know what to do.

Granddaughter in California

Dear Granddaughter,

A will, if it exists, must be filed with the probate court in California within 30 days of the person’s death. That court makes sure the deceased’s creditors are paid before the remaining assets are distributed to the beneficiaries. In order for you to prove there was a will, you will need evidence that a will did indeed exist. A copy of the will in a bank vault or in your late grandfather’s house would obviously be the best evidence that a will was destroyed. Assuming that the only copy of the will was destroyed, that leaves you in something of a Catch 22.

If there was no will or it was destroyed or lost, your grandfather died intestate and his estate will be divided in accordance with state law. California is a community property state, so all community property — that is, assets acquired during his marriage to your grandmother — will go to her. That likely includes life insurance and their home and his retirement accounts. Given that there is more than one surviving child, your grandmother would then receive one-third of the remaining separate property from your grandfather’s estate.

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Is your grandmother of sound mind? She will receive the bulk of her late husband’s estate. If this uncle has undue influence over her, you may have a case. You or one of your grandparents’ other children could take some concrete steps to ensure his estate is being handled appropriately. One suggestion: File a petition to be an administrator of your grandfather’s estate. “You may also file a petition for an accounting,” according to The Grossman Law Firm, a company with offices in California. “If there is evidence of theft criminal charges may be filed in a civil court.”

I don’t have an explanation for the headstone. Perhaps your grandmother or the gravestone carver made an honest mistake. If there was a will that mysteriously disappeared, this would be a foolish way to draw attention to such shenanigans. In situations like this, it’s difficult to see one family member benefit over all others and, sometimes, conspiracy theories abound. I recently heard from a woman who believed her father was murdered in their driveway. I wasn’t convinced that her father was murdered and nor am I sure that your grandfather’s will was spirited away.

Unless you find a will that leaves your grandfather’s estate to his other children or there is evidence that your grandmother is being unduly influenced, you’re out of luck.

Also see: My fiancé postponed our wedding, secretly bought a house—and told me I could pay rent

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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