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This is only for fictional literary research

If a person confesses to a crime on their deathbed, one that caused unfathomable property damage and loss of life, will their heirs be forced to forfeit the estate left to them in that person's will? What about portions of the estate given to them in life? Will they be permitted to retain copyrights or patents created by the deceased?

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It doesn't matter if a debt arises as a result of normal commercial transactions or because of liability for a legal wrong - if you owe money you owe money. While you are alive you are responsible for settling your debts out of your assets as and when they fall due. When you die, your executor has the same responsibility.

The executor's first responsibility is to settle the debts of the deceased - only after they have done this can they make distributions to the beneficiaries. One of their duties is to advertise the death of the person and invite anyone who has a claim against the estate (as a creditor or beneficiary) to come forward - the law puts time limits on how long they have to do so. If some of these liabilities are disputed then the executor must hold back enough funds to cover the disputed amount (and the costs of defending against it).

Intangible assets (copyright, patents etc.) are no different from tangible assets - they can be offered to the creditor to (part) settle the debt or the can be liquidated (sold) to get cash to settle the debt if there is insufficient cash in the estate.

Once all known debts have been settled or successfully denied the executor can distribute whatever assets are left in accordance with the will (or the law if there is no will). If they do all this in accordance with the law then they have no liability. The beneficiaries never have any liability.

Sometimes the estate will be insolvent - its liabilities are greater than its assets. The executor's duty in that case is to follow the applicable bankruptcy law.

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  • If their assets are given as gifts prior to their death, or as payment for a service a would-be heir executed (billions for a painted portrait the heir made), are the assets safe at that point? – anonymous Mar 29 '18 at 4:21
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    @anonymous, that's a great question, and I suggest you ask it separately. Most jurisdictions have laws which void gifts made with intention to defraud creditors in bankruptcy, and often these laws apply to insolvent deceased estates too (although in the United States, insolvent estates are governed by state law rather than federal bankruptcy law). In common law countries the law is often based on the Fraudulent Conveyances Act 1571. – sjy Mar 29 '18 at 11:35
  • "The executor's duty in that case is to follow the applicable bankruptcy law." Slight tweak. Usually, the distribution of assets in an insolvent estate is governed by probate law and done outside of bankruptcy, Indeed, probate law was actually the legal model for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy starts basically a legal fiction in which you assume the debtor had died and distribute his assets as if he was dead pursuant to probate type rules. – ohwilleke Apr 2 '18 at 2:06
  • @anonymous Gifts made prior to death can be unwound if the donor was insolvent (valuing unlitigated torts are the FMV of damages caused) and made within a statute of limitations, or even if insolvent and outside that timeline (in most jurisdictions) if the gift was made with an intent determined from circumstantial evidence (or direct evidence like a diary or confession) to evade creditors claims, without regard to the fault of the recipient. – ohwilleke Apr 2 '18 at 2:14
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Merely saying that you committed a crime does not render you liable for either punishment or restitution - those rely on a court verdict, and you can't try a dead man.

Depending on the jurisdiction, it may be possible for the victims to sue the estate for compensation, and persuade the judge that the confession is sufficient evidence. If they are successful, where the beneficiaries of a post-mortem judgment rank in the distribution sounds like a particularly abstruse bar exam question.

It is unlikely that gifts made during the donor's lifetime would be invalidated by something nobody knew about at the time; except for possible tax liability, the solvency of the deceased would not be affected by later actions.

All this, of course, ignores the huge moral and social pressure that would be exerted on both the executor and the heirs, because that is not a legal question.

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  • Almost totally wrong. Crimes that hurt people and property are almost always also torts and claims for torts can be made in a probate estate. The confession providing a key to other evidence can often meet the preponderance of the evidence standard that applies to a probate claim. Inter vivos gifts can also surely be undone up to the statute of limitations on fraudulent transfers (in the U.S. usually four years if only proven because a gift was made while insolvent which in this case all post-crime gifts would be, and unlimited if gifts were made to defraud creditors, a plausible case here). – ohwilleke Apr 2 '18 at 2:11
  • @ohwilleke: You have no creditors unless/until the debt is established or admitted, neither the case here. – Tim Lymington Apr 2 '18 at 9:06
  • Nope. You have creditors as soon as the events giving rise to the obligation arise, which may or may not be enforced. Those are called unliquidated debts. – ohwilleke Apr 2 '18 at 9:42

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