In movies, finding a dead relative's money sometimes involves buried loot, cryptic clues and murderous treasure-hunters. In real life, it's more likely to involve probate court and online searches. The decedent's will may not list all of her assets. Even if it does, you may have to sue in probate court to claim a share. Once the probate court confirms your relative's executor or estate administrator, talk to him about the estate. You're entitled to see the list of the estate's assets and know how the executor accounts for them.
Submit any claims you have for your relative's unpaid debts to the executor of the estate. Do this promptly: There's a limited period of time to claim a debt from the estate -- usually six to 12 months -- and if you miss the window, the executor can deny your claim. Your state's probate laws will determine how long you have to file a claim after the estate has been officially registered with the appropriate agency.
Present documentation of the debt if the executor requests it. If your relative didn't leave any record of the debt, the executor may insist on proof before paying you.
Wait and see if the estate has the money to settle the debt. Probate law requires executors pay certain debts -- typically funeral expenses, taxes and estate administration costs, among others -- ahead of everything else. If the estate exhausts its funds paying higher priority debts, you're out of luck.
Read your state's probate law and find out what your rights are regarding inheritance. Spouses, for example, are entitled to a share of the estate even if the decedent intentionally cuts them out of the will. In Louisiana, children can claim legitime, a right to inherit a certain share of the estate, even if the decedent didn't bequeath them anything.
Draw up a legal argument showing the reasons for contesting the will, if you decide to go this route. You can do this if you were named a beneficiary in the will, but believe you should have inherited more, or if you weren't named and can convince the court that you should have been. You must show the court you have "standing" to challenge the will.
Present evidence to the probate court that you were cheated out of your rightful inheritance. The judge will want proof that the decedent drew up the will improperly. If you can show that the decedent wrote you out of the will because of fraud, a caregiver's undue influence or a simple mistake, you have a chance to claim a greater share of the estate.
Searching for Lost Money
Search for any money or other assets belonging to the decedent that you and the executor don't know about. These could include safe-deposit box contents, brokerage accounts, bank accounts, Treasury securities or other investments that your relative forgot about or never mentioned in her will. You can suggest places the executor might look for records, or you can use various search engines set up for hunting lost money.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.