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Post: The Moneyist: My grandmother died, leaving a $1 million estate. I asked my mother what happened to half the money. She said, ‘I spent it.’

Dear Quentin,

My grandparents had a $1 million estate. I work about 50 hours a week and still struggle to make ends meet. All of our homes are paid off. My grandma died almost a year ago, and the probate lawyers have been on my mom’s case to collect the necessary documents to settle the estate because the judge is tired of it being on his docket. 

The lawyer told me to inform my mom, who is in her 70s, that the judge will send a constable to her door if she does not hurry up and settle the estate. My mom is the executor and gets 80% of the estate, while I get 20%. She is in poor health herself, but has gone on a spending frenzy. She bought herself an expensive car and has done a ton of remodeling on her home.

When I asked what happened to one of the bank accounts with half a million in it, she said, “I spent it.” I asked what she spent it on, and she said, “Grandma’s bills, and some other stuff.” She has a shopping addiction. If I ask for any money, she gets irate and tells me that I work, and makes digs at my husband and me. 

She is dragging her heels on carrying out her duty, and I worry there won’t be any of my inheritance left. What can I do? Should I call our lawyers back? Can she get into trouble? I wouldn’t want this, but as a disabled person who works three jobs and still struggles to support her four kids, we definitely could use our cut.

Waiting for Mom 

Dear Waiting,

Your mother has no legal right to spend money from your grandmother’s estate, or delay indefinitely probate on her estate. In fact, she has a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries, and you can petition the probate court to compel her to start probate, or remove her as executor. She has proven herself unwilling and/or incapable of performing her duties.

Most courts require a probate bond, which acts as an insurance policy against the executor of a will or an administrator of an estate misappropriating funds. “All probate bonds basically ‘guarantee’ that any outstanding debts of the estate will be satisfied and all remaining assets will be distributed as per the deceased’s wishes, or based on state law,” according to Lissner & Lissner LLP.

Legal intervention will help your mother. Shopping addiction is often a way for people to avoid feeling anxiety or sadness, but it only works for a short period of time, so it becomes a vicious cycle. This need to escape trumps any short- or long-term consequences. Some even see it as a form of internet addiction. Your mom’s addiction has been exacerbated by access to your grandmother’s cash.

‘The longer you wait, the bigger a hole your mother will dig for herself, and the more money will be spent from your inheritance.’

If a judge removes your mother as executor? “The court will force the executor to return the money to the estate or pay restitution to the beneficiaries of the estate,” according to the Law Offices of Albert Goodwin, a New York-based attorney. The court might order her to pay for the attorneys’ fees rather than using funds from your grandmother’s estate to pay for these attorney’s fees, the firm suggests.

Your mother is just managing your grandmother’s estate, and has no right to help herself and act with zero accountability. If an executor uses the estate’s money for their own purposes or transfers estate money to their self, they are considered by the law to be taking everyone’s money, not just their own, Goodwin adds. “Estate money does not belong to the executor,” the law firm says.

Was your mother a co-signer or co-owner on your grandmother’s bank accounts? If she was a co-signer, she has no right to access this money. The longer you wait, the bigger a hole your mother will dig for herself, and the more money will be spent from your inheritance. Standing on the sidelines and exchanging sharp words with your mother is no longer an option.

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

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. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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• ‘She trusts me completely’: My sister offered to pay off my credit-card bill. I’ll repay her over the next 4 years. Am I taking advantage of our relationship?
• ‘He is the most computer-illiterate person I know’: I was my husband’s research analyst, caregiver, cook and housekeeper. Now he wants a divorce after 38 years.

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