My late aunt gave her husband a life tenancy in her home — but her attorney won’t even let us see the will. Is this a bad sign?

United States

Dear Quentin,

My aunt and uncle never had any children so they created a will in which their six nieces and nephews, of which I am one, would inherit their estate equally upon their deaths. This property is in Ohio. My uncle died, and my aunt remarried years later but never changed the will – with the only exception of a life tenancy for her second husband. All her nieces and nephews are remaindermen, and they still stand to inherit this property. 

When she died, we were told by her attorney that we were responsible for the taxes and property insurance during the time when the life tennant lives in the home. We have never been allowed to see a copy of this will to confirm the life tenancy was actually set up this way or not. Is it unusual that named beneficiaries would not be given copies of or, at the very least, be allowed to view the will?

I have done some research on life tenancies and learned that, unless it is specifically stated in the will, the life tenant pays taxes, property insurance and is responsible for general maintenance and upkeep of the property. But since we have not been given a copy of the will and requests to view it have gone unanswered, we don’t know what it really says. Nothing had to be probated, so there is no copy of the will at the county court’s office.

What is our best recourse in this situation?

One of the Remaindermen

Related: My stepfather is in a nursing home with dementia. His daughter whispers, ‘Where are your paychecks?’ in his ear. How do I protect him?

“If you wish to replace the executor, you will need to go through the probate court and prove that he is either self-dealing, incompetent or has some other conflict of interest.”

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Dear Remainderman,

Trust your Spidey sense. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

An executor of a will or administrator of an estate must keep the beneficiaries “reasonably informed” of the contents of the will after it has been probated. What constitutes “reasonably informed” is something of a gray area, but if you are being asked (or told) to pay the house insurance and property taxes on your aunt’s home, your expectation that you would like to see the instructions in black and white does not seem unreasonable.

You’re also correct in that the person given the life tenancy is almost always responsible for paying the property insurance, taxes and maintenance costs. Any other arrangement, unless specified in your aunt’s will, seems highly unusual. A life tenant, in most cases, may even rent the property out, but they must not do anything that would diminish the value of the house; what’s more, the life tenancy may impinge on their ability to apply for Medicaid.

“Suppose that it has been months since a decedent’s will was probated, but there has been no communication from the executor. This could be because the executor was unaware of their duty to keep beneficiaries informed, but it could also be because executor misconduct is taking place, and the executor is attempting to hide it by withholding information,” according to the Keystone Law Group. 

“If beneficiaries fail to take action against an executor who may be engaged in misconduct, the estate could end up being irreversibly harmed,” the law firm adds. “At the end of the day, executors must remember that they are fiduciaries who are obligated to act in the best interests of beneficiaries at all times. When an executor violates their fiduciary duties, they make themselves liable to legal recourse.”

In many states, the executor should give you an inventory and appraisal of the assets held by your late aunt’s estate. In Ohio, a will could take up to nine months to probate, and creditors generally have six months to make a claim. If you wish to replace the executor, you will need to go through the probate court and prove that he is either self-dealing, incompetent or has some other conflict of interest. (Does he know your aunt’s husband?) 

The good news: Once a will has been probated in Ohio — assuming it has, indeed, been probated — it becomes part of the public record and should be filed in probate court. Depending on the county, courts may charge you to access the will, or it may be free to view online. In addition to reading the will, you may also see any creditors or debtors of your aunt’s estate, and even the judge who presided over the probating of the will.

Your best options? Know your rights — and act upon them.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

Previous columns by Quentin Fottrell:

‘I racked up $ 45,000 in credit-card debt doing home repairs’: Should I refinance my house — or take out a personal loan to pay it off?

‘We were all set to enjoy our retirement’: My son invested in startups and we bailed him out with $ 100,000. What now?

I don’t want to end up with stalkers’: Should I tell my heirs that I’m writing a will and how much they can expect to inherit?

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