Inheritance theft: Be vigilant

Reduce the risk of someone stealing from your estate.

Article published: January 12, 2022

You likely have money, property and other items of value that you plan to leave to loved ones or charity. But do they know your plans?

It’s important that you tell them — and sooner rather than later. Why?

Because communication is one of several ways you can protect yourself from an insidious, all-too-frequent crime that is both underreported and underprosecuted, and which victimizes families of all social and economic levels.

I’m talking about inheritance theft.

No matter how smart you are or how stable your family, no one’s estate is entirely safe. Thieves are known to siphon assets from healthy, highly educated people about as often as they do those of the infirm and feeble-minded. And they get away with it because the thieves usually know the victims — and know the victims won’t prosecute.

In other words, the thieves are likely to be members of your own family. Inheritance theft can be hard to detect because thieves use whispered lies, fraud, psychological manipulation and forgery — acts hard to uncover and even harder to prove in court.

Some people never discover they were victimized or the thief convinces them that no theft occurred. Other victims are ashamed to reveal that a family member or close friend stole from them, and others don’t report losses to avoid publicity.

There are two types of estate hijackers:

  1. Family members. Some steal because they want revenge after a lifetime of feeling neglected or abused; others feel compelled because of drug addiction, their own marital or family needs or financial strife; and some simply are greedy.
  2. Outsiders. These include overly friendly strangers, some of whom assist the elderly or infirm to gain their trust; club or church friends; spouses from second marriages; caregivers or healthcare workers; someone who constantly criticizes or tries to portray someone as incompetent; anyone entrusted with handling another person’s money or financial affairs; anyone with a power of attorney; unethical executors of wills or trustees of trusts; and salespeople pushing financial products that are not in a client’s best interests.

Protect your estate

How can you protect your estate and intended heirs from thieves and interlopers? While nothing can make you invincible, here are four ways you can help yourself and your parents avoid becoming victims of inheritance theft:

  1. Prepare an estate plan. Documenting your desires for the disposition of your assets is the first step in preventing people from claiming you made verbal promises to them. Hire an estate attorney that you’ve vetted personally or who is referred to you by a trusted source.
  2. Choose a trusted friend or family member to serve as your executor and/or trustee. And to help make sure he or she follows your instructions, distribute copies of your will and trust documents to at least one other heir — and preferably to all of them. If you feel uncomfortable letting others see your plans, require your executor or trustee to retain the services of an estate attorney (at your or your estate’s expense) to oversee matters. Instruct that the attorney be paid on an hourly basis rather than as a percent of the estate’s value. (Note: We don’t recommend that you name an attorney, bank or trust company as executor or trustee because they typically charge exorbitant fees, often as a percentage of the estate’s value. And they can be difficult or even impossible to fire — leaving your heirs helpless if they are unhappy with the costs or service.)
  3. Keep all your legal and financial documents in a safe place, such as a safety deposit box or a fire-resistant home safe. Create digital backups.
  4. If you make changes to your documents, inform all concerned. And that includes your independent, objective, fee-based financial advisor.

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