After Lying and Embezzling from Her Mother’s Estate, Daughter is Jailed
A Massachusetts daughter was found guilty of stealing money from her deceased mother’s estate and sentenced to jail last week.
After her mother, Shirley Leathers, died of cancer in 2006, Dell Leathers-Buford was named executor of her estate. Two years later, the estate received a $553,579.84 settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of her mother. Rather than splitting the money evenly with her siblings, Leathers-Buford kept more than half the money for herself. In an effort to conceal the money, Leathers-Buford moved it from account to account.
Leathers-Buford was removed as executor after her family grew suspicious about the true value of the settlement. The estate’s new executor worked with the Suffolk County, Mass., District Attorney and Boston Police, which launched a criminal investigation into Leather-Buford’s handling of the money and management of her mother’s estate.
Investigators eventually determined that Leathers-Buford lied under oath to the probate court. She inflated the cost of her mother’s funeral expenses and claimed not to know the location of $200,000 in estate assets that were stolen from the wrongful death settlement.
Ultimately Leathers-Buford was charged with two counts of larceny, two counts of perjury and two counts of embezzlement. Her husband, Kevin Buford, was charged with receiving and hiding stolen funds.
Both were found guilty following a three-day trial. Leathers-Buford was sentenced to 18 months in jail and five years of probation. She must also pay restitution to other family members for the money she stole. Her husband was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but the majority of that sentence was suspended.
Be Alert for Warning Signs
Ultimately, Leathers-Buford’s siblings played a key role in their sister’s criminal conviction. Had they not questioned her actions as the estate’s executor, then law enforcement might never have gotten involved.
Unfortunately, executor crimes aren’t uncommon. Sometimes an executor makes genuine mistakes—either because the executor is sloppy, overwhelmed, keeps poor records or is simply in over his head. In other instances, the executor intentionally tries to enrich himself at the expense of the estate.
California estate planning and probate lawyer Janet L. Brewer says there are a number of warning signs that may indicate an executor is being dishonest. Among them:
- Failing to share information in an open, honest and timely manner. The executor should meet all probate court filing deadlines and be willing to answer a beneficiary’s questions.
- Taking too long to finalize the estate. While it can actually take a year or more to finalize an estate, a simple estate shouldn’t normally drag out for several years, at least not without good reason. Brewer points to one case she saw where it took several years to settle the estate—and all the while, the executor was living in the deceased’s home without paying rent. Arguably, the home should have either been sold or rented out, with the proceeds being split between beneficiaries.
- Threatening beneficiaries for asking too many questions. “I’ve heard of executors saying things like, ‘If you ask too many questions, I’ll make sure you don’t get your share of the inheritance,’” Brewer says. “Or, ‘The will says you don’t have any right to contest what I do.’ That’s not the purpose of a no contest clause. It doesn’t mean that the executor has the right to do whatever she or he pleases without question.”
- Trying to take advantage of the estate by virtue of their position as executor. Often an executor’s responsibilities involves selling certain assets—such as furniture, a car or a home—and then splitting the cash between beneficiaries. The executor has a fiduciary duty to get the most money possible in these sales, but some will take advantage of their executor status to get a deal. Brewer has seen one executor try to buy the deceased’s car for just a fraction of its true value and another who tried to buy the deceased’s house for $150,000 less than its asking price.
If You Suspect Fraud
If you are the beneficiary of an estate and think the executor is being dishonest, there are several steps you can take.
Consider getting an independent opinion from a probate lawyer who’s not involved in the estate. The attorney can review the last will and testament, probate court filings and any correspondence you’ve had with the executor in an effort to determine whether something is amiss.
Your lawyer can also take your concerns and available evidence to the probate court that’s overseeing the estate or local law enforcement authorities. After they review the evidence, they may decide to take legal action. This could include issuing a court order that requires or forbids the executor from performing certain actions, removing the executor and appointing a replacement, or filing criminal charges.
Regardless of the probate court or law enforcement’s actions, you may also have grounds for a civil lawsuit against the executor. Your probate lawyer can review your situation and tell you if this is a viable option.