There are several different types of inheritance theft. Inheritance theft occurs when a person, such as a caregiver, friend, neighbor, new spouse or advisor uses his or her relationship with a person making a will, called the testator, to obtain or take money or property from the testator that the testator intended to leave to his children or other heirs that are the natural objects of his affection. In addition to leaving heirs without an
inheritance, inheritance theft may result in the testator losing assets he needs for food, housing, long term care, and other expenses.
The person seeking to steal the inheritance gains the trust of the testator and uses tactics such as undue influence, lies, threats, manipulation, isolation or forgery to obtain gifts, transfers or bequests of cash and property from the testator or to steal from the testator. Inheritance theft can also be committed by fiduciaries such as executors, trustees, guardians, and conservators. An example of inheritance theft is an executor stealing assets from the estate during estate administration.When most people hear the term inheritance theft, they think of acts committed by outsiders that are not related to the testator. However, inheritance theft is often committed by the testatorís own children or other family members. See
greedy heirs.Seniors will sometimes give away valuables, money, and property to people that visit them more often or help them on a regular basis. A person seeking to inherit from an estate may use this time with the testator to influence them about other heirs.For example, one child may use manipulation or deception to gain control of property that was to be divided among all the testatorís children according to the testator's will or living trust. In this situation, some of the children are left with no inheritance while one child receives the entire estate, even though such a result is contrary to the testatorís wishes and contrary to the will of the testator's spouse. See greedy siblings.
Act Quickly to Prevent Inheritance Theft
Inheritance theft can happen very quickly. If you live far away from your parents or are busy with other responsibilities, you may be surprised to learn that estate planning changes can be made in a very short time. Property can be gifted to someone else and assets that belong in the family estate can be stolen by a trusted friend or relative, all without your knowledge. If you do not visit your elderly parent for a few weeks or months, you may find personal property, cash, and other valuable assets were given away or taken. See protecting parents from greedy heirs.Another common mistake adult children make regarding inheritance theft is assuming they can reverse property transfers, gifts, and bequests after their parent passes away. Sometimes children do not want to confront their parents about what amounts to either accidental disinheritance or deliberate intention to disinherit an heir. If you suspect someone is stealing from your parent or trying to take your inheritance, immediate action is required if you want to stop it. Even with costly legal action, you may be unable to undo gifts, bequests, and property transfers made by your parent. See will and trust disputes. Also, regardless of your legal rights, it may be impossible to recover the property from the person who took it.
Signs of Inheritance Theft
If you are an heir and want to ensure you will receive your rightful inheritance or want to protect your parent from being a victim of inheritance theft, there are several steps you can take. The first step is to determine whether inheritance theft is actually taking place. The following is a comprehensive list of steps that will help you determine whether you will be cut out of your inheritance and whether someone is taking advantage of your parent. To do this, you will need access to your parent's bank statements, tax returns, receipts, other financial records and documents, as well as a general understanding of the assets in your parent's estate.1. Review tax records at the office of the county tax assessor either online or in person to see whether title to property has changed via a deed, a sale of real estate, and whether any liens have been placed on the property.2. Review bank, brokerage, and retirement account statements to see whether there have been withdrawals in amounts that are greater than normal. Evaluate whether the funds available are sufficient to meet your parent's expenses.3. Review beneficiary designations on life insurance policies, annuities, brokerage accounts and retirement accounts to determine if you are named as a beneficiary or whether you have been replaced.4. Review bank accounts to make sure another person has not been added as a joint account holder. Review pay on death or POD designations on bank accounts to find out if you are named as a pay on death beneficiary or whether you have been replaced.
5. Review receipts and invoices for fees and expenses for legal services, notary services or estate planning software to make changes to your parent's estate plan via a will, living trust, property deed, power of attorney or other estate planning forms.6. Examine personal property in desks, drawers, closets, cabinets, home safes, and safe deposit boxes to determine if jewelry, coins, bonds, cash, collectibles or other personal property is missing.7. Review federal and state tax returns for the past several years. When trying to determine whether assets are missing or have been gifted to others, tax returns provide valuable clues to detect inheritance theft.Be sure to obtain your parent's consent before viewing any of his or her personal financial records.
Even Good Children Are Disinherited
Seniors with failing health are extremely susceptible to manipulation by the type of people that commit inheritance theft. Many adult children believe they have a strong bond with their parents and wrongly assume they will never be disinherited. When the adult child who is the legitimate heir tries to uncover what is happening with his parent's estate plan, the legitimate heir often finds his elderly parent trusts the person committing inheritance theft more than his own child.
How to Stop Inheritance Theft
Because of the many types of situations in which inheritance theft can occur, the steps you need to take to stop inheritance theft are different from case to case. The following is a list of actions you can take if you suspect you or your parent may be a victim of inheritance theft.1. Consult an estate planning lawyer or probate attorney. This is the most important step because a licensed attorney can evaluate the specific facts of your case and advise how to proceed. See finding an attorney.2. Become more involved with your parent. Spending more time with your parent and helping your parent with day to day activities is one of the best ways to protect your parent from someone that is trying to exercise undue influence or take advantage.3. If your parent is incapacitated, learn about conservatorships and decide whether you need to pursue having a conservator or guardian appointed to manage your parent's financial affairs.4. Talk to your parent about granting financial power of attorney to you. By obtaining power of attorney, you can help manage your parent's finances. See power of attorney forms.