Protecting Yourself From Inheritance Theft

Emily Guy Birken

There is something about a death in the family that can bring out the worst in people. It’s not uncommon for family resentments to boil over in the wake of grief, which often leads to hurt feelings and arguments after the death of a loved one.

However, greed is an even uglier common reaction to death. There are those who take advantage of a death in the family to line their own pockets, against the wishes of the deceased.

You might assume that your will or estate plan ensures that your money will go to your intended heirs—but inheritance theft is an insidious and underreported problem that can cost families dearly. And since inheritance thieves are usually family members, the fallout often is not only about money, but also family ties.

Here is what you need to know about the problem of inheritance theft, and how you can protect yourself and your heirs from inheritance thieves.

What Is Inheritance Theft?

When we think of inheritance theft, we tend to think of doddering old millionaires marrying their 20-something nurses and leaving everything to the new spouse, rather than to their adult children. This may be the classic example of inheritance theft, but there are multiple ways that an inheritance thief or hijacker can get their hands on money not intended for them. According to attorney Robert C. Adamski, there are several common methods that inheritance hijackers use to divert an inheritance to themselves:

Undocumented Loans

Family members who borrow money from an elderly relative may insist that such loans were gifts after the relative’s death. If there is no loan document—which there often isn’t in the case of a family loan—the heirs have no recourse to get the money back.

Denigration of Fellow Heirs

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 aging parent to change his or her will in favor of the lying heir.

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 his or herself. If the sibling of the disabled child were to destroy the will, then the parent would be considered to have died without making a will, also known as intestate, and the money would be distributed equally between the siblings.


The individual entrusted with handling the estate accounts could easily move assets to their own accounts. While this is illegal, it often goes unreported and unchallenged because the heir has to use his own funds to pay the legal fees to prove malfeasance.

How to Protect Your Heirs

The best method of protecting your wishes is through a well-written estate plan. Such a plan includes a detailed will, a power of attorney, and trusts for your assets. For each of these documents, you will need to consult a well-vetted estate attorney to make sure your wishes are legally binding.

Here are the particular concerns you will need to consider for each of these documents.

Your Will

This is the center of your estate plan, and you can make your will as detailed as you like, so that the distribution of your property can follow your exact wishes. You can also change your will anytime you like, and it’s prudent to review it every few years to make sure that everything is still up-to-date.

One of the important choices you will have to make when drawing up your will is who will act as your executor. This is the person who will handle the logistical details of your estate after your death. Since this person will be managing your assets until they are distributed to your heirs, you must choose someone whom you trust to follow your wishes. An untrustworthy executor is in a position where he or she could embezzle funds after your death.

Most people name their spouse, a close friend, or family member as their executor. However, it’s possible to hire an executor who will be paid from your estate, and, in fact, lawyers will often perform executor services. If you have an already-contentious family situation, hiring an executor can ensure an unbiased third party is handling your estate after your death.

Financial Power of Attorney

If you were to become mentally or physically incapacitated, you would need someone to act as your power of attorney to make financial decisions on your behalf. As with choosing an executor, you need to trust that this individual will follow your wishes, since a power of attorney has control over your assets.

Without a power of attorney in place, the courts will step in to appoint what’s known as a conservator should you become incapacitated. This process is lengthy and expensive, and you have no choice in whom the court appoints as your conservator, which is why choosing your power of attorney is so important.


In the simplest terms, a trust is a financial agreement among three parties:

  1. Grantor—who creates and funds the trust
  2. Beneficiary—who receives the assets from the trust
  3. Trustee—who has a fiduciary duty to responsibly manage the assets in the trust

Creating a trust for your assets can be an excellent way to make sure that money is available for beneficiaries unable to handle money on their own—such as minor children. In addition, certain types of trusts can provide a surviving spouse with income during his or her lifetime, while leaving the assets themselves to additional beneficiaries, such as adult children, after the death of the surviving spouse.

It is vital that you choose a trustee whom you know will respect her fiduciary duty, since the trustee has control over the assets in your trust. Requiring two co-trustees and asking for dual signatures on all financial paperwork can help ensure that no one abuses their power as a trustee.

Other Actions to Protect Your Heirs

In addition to the well-written estate plan and the careful choice of anyone who will be in control of your assets, there are several other actions you can take to protect your heirs from inheritance theft:

  1. Appoint two executors to your estate. Make one of your two executors a non-family professional, such as a trust company, a financial planner, or an attorney. This lowers the likelihood that your executor will take advantage of his position.
  2. Discuss your estate plan with the entire family. Telling the whole clan—ideally at the same time—what your plans are will make it more difficult for any one family member to try to circumvent your wishes later.
  3. Put a disclosure requirement in your will. If your will requires your executor to disclose all details about estate expenses, assets, and financial transfers, it will be more difficult for an untrustworthy executor to hide misappropriation or theft.

Protect Yourself From Inheritance Theft

What if you are an heir who fears your inheritance has been stolen or is in danger of being hijacked by someone else? This is a very difficult situation, since it can be both expensive to fight an inheritance thief in the courts and difficult to prove that your inheritance has been hijacked.

According to Valerie Rind, author of the book Gold Diggers and Deadbeat Dads, the first thing you need to do is “consult a lawyer who specializes in trusts and estate work. The attorney who handled your brother’s DUI probably isn’t the best choice.” That’s because an estate attorney will know the specifics to look for in proving your case, and will have plenty of experience in dealing with inheritance shenanigans.

It’s also important to know your rights, says Rind. While the laws vary from state to state, there are certain rights that you can count on as an heir or beneficiary. In particular, as an heir, you have the right to receive information about the will and the estate, if you request it from the executor. If the executor is trying to keep you in the dark, that is a major red flag.

In addition, you also have the right to an accounting of the estate or the trust. The accounting is a detailed report of income, expenses, and distributions from the estate or trust, explains Rind. The accounting should be in writing, and should provide supporting papers such as receipts or cancelled checks. These supporting papers should match the information on the accounting that the executor or trustee provides.

Be Prepared to Spend Money on Legal Fees

Once you do consult with an attorney, recognize that you may have to pay some hefty legal fees. According to attorney Mary Randolph, “a lawyer who does nothing but estate planning and probate will likely charge a higher hourly rate than a general practitioner.” Estate attorneys will be more efficient with their (billable) time, since they have plenty of experience in that area of law — but it does mean that the average heir may experience sticker shock when hearing their estate attorney’s hourly rate.

When a trust is involved, Rind also cautions beleaguered heirs that trusts can cause increased financial headaches, because “the trust itself is a separate ‘person’ and might need its own attorney. The legal fees get paid out of the trust’s assets, so you could wind up spending the money you are fighting over.”

This is why it’s important to determine ahead of time if the fight over your loved one’s money or property will be worth the time, energy, and legal fees you will have to pour into it. Legal fees have decimated plenty of estates when heirs fight long court battles over what belongs to whom.

Rest in Peace of Mind

Fighting against an inheritance thief is both exhausting and expensive, and it will not necessarily bring back the money that was taken. This is why the best defense against inheritance theft is a good offense: Prepare a well-written estate plan, appoint multiple individuals as executors, trustees, and powers of attorney as a safeguard against untrustworthy behavior, and be open with your entire family about your wishes.

If you do all of these things, you can feel much more secure in the knowledge that your wishes will be carried out after you are gone.

What You Need to Know About Identity Theft and Fraud

15 Responses to "Protecting Yourself From Inheritance Theft"

  • Extra Mile Staff | January 25, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    Steven- thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Steven | January 25, 2019 at 5:43 am

    I hate seeing so much grief being shared over such a thing. My father always acted under the wishes of his father to setup a way to fulfill our inheritance. My stepmother found a powerful line in a “poorly” written trust. She was a settlor and with that sentence it gave her power to revoke. She revoked and now, we get nothing. Just a costly legal battle to appeal or charge the man who wrote the trust with malpractice. The man is in his 80’s and was a lawyer for my father and grandfather. Sad that this happened. Everyone around says to move on. My grandfather was a WWII hero and he would have flipped if my stepmother got it all. So much for justice in this country. Too easy to steal from children. My father was a victim of poor trust planning. He either didn’t know what he was doing or he didn’t explain what he wanted to us. He totally skipped over the part about telling your grown children about what to expect and what to do. He thought the document would hold up. I didn’t think my stepmother could be so evil. Greed must be the root of my suffering. I didn’t get a keepsake for his ashes or anything. We knew she would be toxic and shifty. Mediation did nothing.

  • Kate Brownell | January 13, 2019 at 6:00 am

    My family (my husband and my son) is not strong economically. Three months ago my mother-in-law passed away. We know that she had some savings and also another land. Now we have no information about the papers of those assets. How we can get the information? Should we hire an estate planner who can suggest us to get the assets or the information?

  • Extra Mile Staff | January 2, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    Great input Yoshiko. Thanks!

  • Dan Devlin | December 28, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    I need legal help. My sister has confused my 87 year old mother, who just died, and convinced my Mom to change her Will and remove me from her Will. All monies will go to my sister and her 2 sons. My mom, in my opinion, was Very confused from various medicines, and did Change her Will

  • Yoshiko Flora | December 26, 2018 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks for the great tip that one should find a trustworthy spouse, a close friend, or family member to be a will's executor. Aside from them, I believe that one should also find a probate attorney to help. Aside from making financial decisions on a person's behalf, they can help rewrite the will too.

  • M. Taylor | November 28, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    I have someone whos mother died left millions to her daughter in a trust, her uncle is her trustee he has taken all the money and thru out years have manipulated lied forged and left her unknowing of where anything is because its all gone the money but its not he keeps the money circulating within his business and his sons accounts so when one files for bankruptcy then the money will have already been in another account. her mother died in Santa Clara county shes in ventura county where should she begin to find out if hes still her trustee her uncle said he wasn't anymore her trustee a couple of years shes not in contact with him and now her taxes have shown up and are due she doesn't even know what's on the deed to her condo that he had bought for her even though he totally just tricked her into moving into the place its been 9 yrs since moving in. this is the first time she has received anything in her name to pay so shes not knowing where to begin not only confused with just this. life isn't perfect so she has trapped herself within the walls of her own mind like the small condo she stays in excluding herself from the world battling with cancer and plus some other health issues. its to overwhelming and before she dies she just wants to untangle the mess with her uncle. she feels betrayed and stripped of what was hers and i feel she has a valid feeling and i wish to help her but omg this is a mess where do i begin, who do i cal? Any help is so appreciated please, thank you . Sincerely, M.Taylor

  • Tim Yaotome | October 24, 2018 at 7:21 am

    I am surprised that people claiming that they are heirs without legal support can give the will writer a hard time making one's inheritance. If I were to claim myself as an heir, I would do it in the presence of a respected legal advisor. Not only will this give substantial proof that one is the rightful heir for one's inheritance but also be able to protect the departed loved one's wishes.

  • larry taschery | October 23, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    i need a really good family lawyer. my family who has integrity and is willing to help out someone who is really been done wrong.

  • Larry taschery | September 19, 2018 at 3:36 am

    I have been railroaded out of my inheritance

  • Billie perry | July 15, 2018 at 11:19 pm

    My mom passed no will i have nothing to do with one sibling the other told me they were burning my mom house.they made my bro in law executor they went thru whole house before burn.then they filed ins clain 2 heirs left me out i told fediciary .he supposed to give copies all monies rec to commissioner he did not.they did nothing to him

  • Shelly Beaver | June 21, 2018 at 1:38 am

    How can a person protect the estate when the girlfriend of 7 months steals $10,000. Cash, plus our Mothers jewelry, antiques, everything that wasn't nailed down? This woman knew our Dad was dying, and refused us entry in the house, while taking everything she could, and then slanders us on social media! She pulled the plug on his life support, without proper authority, then wouldn't tell us he passed. We learned via facebook he passed. What do we do? Isn't there some way to prosecute? Or do we lack evidence?

  • Chip Payne | May 30, 2018 at 12:39 am

    I am 68 retired no assets just SS. My partner is 62 in good health but we are going to travel. She has inherited money and there are no children or other claimants, just me. In case of the worst and she is disabled or passes away, we don't want me to lose money on probate or any other thing, I will need the money. How much in legal fees for this one will be reasonable, nobody claiming, just me.

  • Les Phillips | May 24, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    I have a Caregiver in Sheffield Lakes Ohio doing this very thing with the inheritance my father has left. What to do? I live in Georgia...

  • Vivian Reed | January 13, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    My brother hacked my sis and me. Made craigist ads with my name selling his property and commercial property. There is probably much more. My father will not see me and Im sure there is a new Trust without me. Didn't realize the whole time being duped. I still cannot access my gmail account they used to do this. I fear I will never see my dad again. I reported everything but no one is helping.

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