My mother took her last breath on Wednesday, May 28th, 2014, just before 9am. Less than seven hours later, my niece went to the bank, accessed my mother’s safe deposit box, and emptied it of its contents, which consisted of nearly $200k in cash, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewelry and other valuables. Yes, this really happened.
Prior to my mother falling ill, this particular niece and I were not close, but she was certainly one of the few family members I trusted. She came to live with us when we were both in high school. She was a sweet girl, and I loved her. More importantly, she loved my mother, and my mother loved her. Over the past twenty years, our relationship had become marginalized by distance and time, among other things. However, never would I have imagined she’d be capable of such a stunt; never.
Before my Father died, he and my mother had a will constructed naming me the executor, a role that I was never keen on filling, but obliged to nonetheless, as I felt it was my responsibility to them, and the balance of my family. Following my father’s death ten years previously, and leading up to her own death over the next ten years, my mother struggled with what she wanted to do with her money and time. She stayed busy by investing in her church, as well into my niece, and her son, among other family members she’d hoped would find a straighter path.
My mother’s relationship with her three grown daughters, including this niece’s mother, was tumultuous for the most part. Alcohol and drug abuse were primarily the culprit, but it also had to do with childhood trauma, abuse, and a lot of hurt. However, my mother loved all of her daughters equally. All the same, she adopted my half-brother as her own, making five siblings in all. The will my parents had drawn up made each child an equal beneficiary of their estate upon both of their passings. It was definitive and fair.
About 6-8 weeks before my mother died, she contacted me to inform me of the report she’d received from her doctor. I began to travel back and forth to my hometown to help her get her affairs in order. We met with her attorney, who was attempting to help her draft a revision to her will according to her wishes. My niece and I were present in all of those meetings, with exception of when they were discussing how she and I would be treated as beneficiaries.
During those discussions, I, along with my mother’s attorney attempted to assist my mother in deciding to whom, and how her monies and assets would be distributed. As usual, it was very difficult for her, and there were very large swings in who, and how much each person, and/or charitable organization would receive. In one of those meetings, my mother informed me that she was removing me as executor, and replacing me with my niece. I thought nothing of it at the time.
A few days before my mother died, I called her attorney to inform him of her rapidly deteriorating condition. I explained to him that it would likely only be a few days and she’d be gone. A day or two later, he showed up with a revised will and an IRA beneficiary designation, naming me and my niece as sole beneficiaries; something I learned of that morning. Her attorney, his assistant, a bank employee, and another witness entered my mother’s house. My niece and I stayed outside. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, they exited the house, and her attorney informed me she was unable to sign either, and he called it off, based on her condition. At the time she wasn’t speaking, and was taking large doses of pain killers.
Within the hour, I explained to my niece that because my mother had not signed the will, it was as if it never existed. I knew she had a key to the safe deposit box, so I instructed her not to access it for any reason. The assets in the safe deposit box would become property of the estate upon my mother’s passing, and would need to be distributed in accordance with the will. I didn’t want her putting herself or me, as the incoming executor, in a compromising situation.
A couple of days later my mother died. My niece and I, along with our spouses went to the funeral home to make arrangements for the service. My wife and I left, and headed home. My niece and her husband went straight to the bank. Never said a word to me or anyone else about it then, or for the next several weeks. It was only when I confronted her a few weeks later was she forced to fess up, and did so only in part.
Knowing I was to be sworn in as executor, it was my job to ensure that all assets were safe, and under my direct control. I needed to confirm that my niece had not accessed the safe deposit box at anytime following my mother’s death, as it would not allow the family to access it together for the first time to take an inventory and distribute the assets in accordance with the will. When I confronted her, she immediately became defensive and isolated, and from that day on, I have not spoken to her again. I pleaded with her through text messages, emails, and voice mails to talk to me about what had occurred, because following being sworn in as executor, I would have no choice to expose her. She never broke the silence. In fact, she attempted to convince my entire family of things that later proved to be untrue, so the story goes.
I was sworn in as executor, we filed a restraining order, accessed the box to find it empty. Months later in front of a judge, my niece was cold and calculated. She claimed that the contents of the safe deposit box were a gift. Her actions proved anything but. We found out that day in court that she had accessed the safe deposit box, emptied it, moved it to another box in the same bank with only her name on it. Later, she came back to the bank, and removed all of the cash and most of the valuable items and took them to anther bank. She never mentioned a word of any of this until she was confronted. On more than one occasion following my mother’s unsuccessful execution of the revised will, my niece would proclaim, “I don’t even care about the money.” I thought it was quite strange then, but it makes a lot more sense now.
Nearly a year later, my family has settled with my niece. It cost our family nearly $100k in legal fees to get back what belonged to our family to begin with. In the end, my niece traded her entire family for a little money, a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry, a trailer park, and two tons of heartache. All by her own choosing.
I’ve experienced divorce, and I’ve experienced death, and both have brought the worst out in the people I trusted the most. I can’t imagine ever being able to forgive my niece, but time is a gracious soul. Of all the time she spent with my mother, she obviously missed out on the things she stood for without fail; honesty, character, and integrity.
Here’s what you’ve been waiting for…
I’m embarrassed by all the things I’ve thought and wanted to say to my niece. I’m hurt that someone I trusted so much betrayed me, and what I feel like is my mother for some silver, so to speak. Reminds me of a story I once read. What’s most disturbing is that my niece is heavily involved in her church, has taught classes for women, and worked with another church member who received $100k from my mother six weeks before she died, and also claimed it a gift. How convenient. Many of these church members showed up at court to “support” my niece, clearly not knowing all the facts of the case, which don’t marry well with their doctrine.
I’m angry, but a small voice in my head reminds me that this too shall pass, and it’s not my responsibility to right other people’s wrongs; that every person will one day answer for their actions, and that in forgiveness there is healing. That small voice is my mother, reminding me that love is the answer. Maybe she’s right…just maybe.
Last night, I watched a documentary on Enron. It reminded me how hypnotizing greed can be. It can make even the most scenical of skeptics surrender to it’s charm, and I am no exception. Ten years ago, I got caught up in a Nigerian scam. It involved a bogus multi-million dollar contract from a major oil company, $10,000 in cash concealed in two first class dopp kits, a Nigerian chief, and a Montblanc pen. The story is quite incredible, and ends with me escaping in the middle of the night from my hotel in Warri to avoid being kidnapped. Perhaps I’ll spend a couple of hours one day inventorying the events of my Nigerian nightmare, but I mainly wanted to make it known that I’m no stranger to greed. The deal reeked like a dead fish, and I sank my teeth in.
On more than one occassion, I’ve described greed as the gremlin that crawls up your back, looks you in the eye and tells you that you deserve more. Like the line in the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, when the young actor asks his nemisis what his number is, and he says “more.” More is never enough.
I’m no politician, nor am I the next Robin Hood, but I think there may be something magical about repressing greed. I’ve never experienced or heard of anyone on their death bed wishing they had time to earn more, get more, or spend more. Sure, I want nice things for my family, and myself, but not at any cost.
So to all the other conservative liberals, and capitalistic democrats out there…give generously, do the right thing, and hang on to your soul; you may need your ticket punched some day.