Inheritance theft isn’t something anyone wants to think someone in their family is capable of. Unfortunately, however, inheritance theft does occur. A family doesn’t have to be especially wealthy to experience inheritance theft. It occurs with estates of all sizes.
While outright theft of assets is certainly one type of inheritance theft, there are other ways to deprive heirs of the assets their loved one would have wanted them to have. For example, sometimes family members, caregivers and others will use undue influence, coercion or trickery of some sort to get a person to change their will or other estate plan documents. Sometimes, they use their access to a sick or elderly person to take jewelry, money and other items while they’re still alive.
When it comes to actually stealing or hiding assets, those in charge of administering the estate typically have the most opportunity. An executor or trustee can steal inheritances by:
- Taking, diverting or hiding assets listed in the estate plan
- Charging fees for their services above what’s allowed by law or provided for in the estate plan
- Destroying or altering documents in the estate plan
- Reporting losses in investments included in an estate plan that didn’t occur
Inheritance theft can be a criminal offense. Heirs and other beneficiaries may also be able to take civil legal action against someone who has engaged in inheritance theft.
Proving inheritance theft
If you don’t have access to the estate plan documents and your loved one’s financial information, it can be difficult to determine whether all of their assets have been accounted for and properly distributed. If you are indeed an heir, you have a right to access information about the estate by requesting it from the executor. If they say you don’t have the authority to see it or continue to delay providing it to you, that’s not a good sign.
You can also request a full report of the estate (or an individual trust). This will list all expenses, distributions and income. Sometimes when people create their estate plan, they’ll stipulate that such a report needs to be produced. However, you have a right to get one even if the estate plan didn’t mention it. If you believe you and/or other family members are the victim of inheritance theft, it’s wise to get legal guidance as soon as possible.