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What is inheritance theft?

Inheritance theft takes many forms. It's often not as simple as someone taking possession of a deceased loved one's wedding ring from the hospital or walking out of the house with a set of fine china because it was "promised" to them.

Too often, it's the people trusted to administer the estate who take funds that are intended for others. This could be a trustee or an executor. Inheritance theft could involve someone destroying a new will that other family members may not know about because it left less to them.

Sometimes, inheritance theft begins while a loved one is still alive. Family members and others may denigrate or flat-out lie about others to dissuade someone from leaving them money. Too often, elderly people, particularly if they are suffering from some degree of dementia, are unduly influenced to make changes to their will or other estate planning documents.

If you suspect some form of inheritance theft, it's important to consult with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible. If your deceased loved one worked with an attorney to prepare their estate plan, start with them. However, you'll want to retain your own attorney if you decide to dispute the estate plan in court.

No one who's been through the process of disputing a will or estate plan wants that for their heirs and beneficiaries. You can take some steps to prevent it. These include:

  • A well-written estate plan prepared by an attorney.
  • Multiple fiduciaries (executors, powers of attorney and trustees) to minimize the chances (or even the appearance) of impropriety.
  • Talking with your family, at least in general terms, about the contents of your estate plan and your intentions. This will help prevent unwelcome surprises and also show them that you are fully aware of what you're doing.
  • Including a disclosure requirement that mandates that your executor and other administrators disclose all estate assets, expenses and financial transfers to all heirs and beneficiaries. This minimizes the temptation for malfeasance.

Contesting a will or any part of an estate plan is typically no easy (or inexpensive) process. It can create or exacerbate family tensions. That's why it's essential to seek experienced legal guidance before you do it.

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