What to Do if You Suspect You or a Client Are a Victim of Estate Fraud
Estates are meant to be administered in accordance with the law in cases where the wishes of the deceased are not expressed in last will. When someone in a position to commits acts of fraud against the estate by trying to obtain estate assets without proper entitlement as an intestate heir, for personal gain they could be deliberately going against the best interests of the rightful heirs and the personal representative of the estate. Other parties might also be committing fraud. Below, we discuss estate and probate fraud, and how to react if you suspect fraud has been committed. Call a professional forensic genealogist for proper, licensed, and legal assistance identifying the proper heirs to an estate.
What is Estate Fraud?
Estate fraud or probate fraud can take one of several different forms. Anything that unduly affects the probate process might be a form of estate fraud. Common forms of fraud alleged in probate litigation include the following:
- A purported heir making an unfounded claim of entitlement to the estate with fraudulently generated proof (or in many cases, no proof at all)
- Disinherited parties destroying or hiding a will to force the estate into intestate succession
- Undue influence by a family member or person in a position of trust and authority over the deceased, causing the decedent to alter their will or other estate documents shortly before their passing
- Estate assets hidden, stolen or misused by a trustee or executor of the estate
Signs of Estate Fraud
There are a number of red flags to watch out for to identify potential estate or probate fraud. Some of these events might include:
- An unexpected “heir” appearing seemingly out of thin air (quite often, they are represented by counsel)
- A decedent changing their will or other estate documents multiple times shortly before passing
- A spouse or child being excluded from the will for no apparent reason
- A new will drafted without witnesses or the presence of an attorney
- Assets given away in large “gifts” shortly before the decedent’s passing
- A will or trust primarily benefiting a caregiver, accountant, or other trusted adviser rather than family members
- Large parts of the estate missing or unaccounted for
- Trust assets appear to have dwindled in a short time or after the decedent’s passing
- A sudden fire or other event conveniently destroying estate documents shortly before or after a decedent’s passing
These are just a few examples of signs that something untoward has happened. Be vigilant for anything that appears off, given what you know about the decedent, the estate, and the family.
What to Do if You Suspect Estate Fraud?
If you have reason to believe that estate fraud has taken place, whether you are the estate administrator, a family member, or an attorney representing an interested party, you need to act to ensure that the estate is administered properly and in accordance with the law. Probate litigation takes place whenever there are challenges to how an estate has been or should be administered. If you suspect fraud, you’ll need to alert the probate court of your suspicions and be prepared to back up your allegations with evidence.
If you are concerned about an alleged heir or purported heir suddenly showing up, talk to the estate administrator or a probate attorney about hiring a qualified forensic genealogist for assistance validating the heir’s claims of familial relation. If you are a family member, talk to the estate administrator or a probate attorney about your suspicions and your foundations. If you are an attorney, prepare to file a petition in court to challenge the administration of the estate. You may need to bring evidence including expert witness testimony provided by a qualified forensic genealogist. A forensic genealogist may also locate persons who could provide witness testimony concerning undue influence or other issues, documents proving that money or assets were improperly transferred or signatures were forged, reports or testimony from accountants showing money was mismanaged, or other evidence showing that some wrongdoing was committed. If you are concerned about a phantom heir’s claims, talk to a qualified forensic genealogist for assistance validating the heir’s claims of a relationship to the decedent.
If you’re an estate administrator in need of seasoned assistance identifying and locating missing heirs to an estate and for determination of heirship proceedings, or heir research services in order to satisfy due diligence requirements, contact the qualified and thorough forensic genealogists at Von Langen, LLC at 800-525-7722.