The best way to protect yourself and your family beyond the grave is to make a will or plan your estate to ensure that the assets you leave upon death will go to your intended heirs or beneficiaries. A will can expressly state your heirs and the shares you want them to receive, establish plans for your funeral or last rites (if any is desired), name an executor to carry out your wishes and to comply with legal requirements of the taxing authorities and the banks.
But the best will or the best-studied estate planning does not ensure against “Inheritance Theft.” There are different types of inheritance theft (See, Pennyborn.com, 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 legal 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 he testator. Inheritance theft can also be committed by fiduciaries, such as executors, trustees, guardians and conservators while they are administering the estate. It is committed not only by third parties, it is also often committed by the testator’s own children or family members.”
“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 him 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 testator’s 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 testator’s wishes and contrary to the will of the testator’s spouse. 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.”
Inheritance Theft (also referred to as “Inheritance Hijacking,”) may take the following forms:
Family members who borrowed money from a relative might insist that such loans were gifts after the relative’s death. If there is no loan document in place, the heirs have no recourse to get the money back from the borrower on behalf of the estate. The only way to protect an estate from this kind of hijacking is to insist on loan documents whenever a large amount of money changes hands.
Denigration of fellow heirs
Rather than focus on the bonds between each other, heirs are sometimes more focused on what they can do to increase their piece of the estate pie. An heir might lie about the other heirs, claiming that one sibling can’t be trusted with money, while another has more than he needs. This kind of denigration can persuade an elderly parent to change the will in favor of the lying heir. Unfortunately, it is difficult for an heir who is being denigrated to protect himself from this kind of insidious hijacking—in part because the denigrated heir rarely knows it has happened until after it is too late.
Forging or destroying documents
IN some cases, a family member or advisor might prepare a fake will or a fake amendment to a real will, giving the forger a bigger slice of the inheritance pie. For instance, imagine a parent who leaves most of his estate to a disabled child who cannot take care of herself. If the older sibling of the disabled child were to destroy the will, then the parent would be considered to have died intestate, and the money would be distributed equally among the siblings. (See, Emily Grey Birke “Protecting Yourself From Inheritance Theft” May 21, 2019, extramile, the harford.com)
The best way to protect your heirs and ensuring that your last wishes are followed is through a well-written estate plan. Such plan includes a detailed will providing for the distribution of your property following your exact wishes, and naming a competent and trustworthy executor who will handle the logistical details of your estate after your death. The executor need not be a family member, especially if you already have a contentious family situation (i.e., “greedy heirs”). Appointing two or more individuals as executor could be a deterrent or safeguard against untrustworthy behavior. It is also ideal, for your peace of mind, to be open with your entire family about your wishes.
Lastly, wills can be contested if there is reason to doubt their legitimacy or enforceability. Nine common mistakes (“9” DON’Ts) have been cited as triggers for challenges:
1. Don’t forget to update your will;
2. Don’t forget to tell someone where to find your will;
3. Don’t be vague or include obscure terms;
4. Don’t create multiple versions of your will without noting which is the most current;
5. Don’t include illegal or unenforceable clauses;
6. Don’t sign your will without a witness;
7. Don’t create your will when you are not of sound mind;
8. Don’t assume others will know what you want; and
9. Don’t create a will without legal guidance.
From several years of dealing with feuding family members, legal wives and mistresses, greedy siblings, protracted estate court battles, I would add a final advice, a food for thought—it may actually be best not to leave behind any estate. Spend it all while you can, live life to the fullest. Let your legacy not be the assets and monies you are leaving behind for your heirs to quarrel over. Let that legacy be the caring, love, time, understanding and compassion you had for your family while still alive.
For me, these are treasures that will be remembered long after you are gone!