The general term of inheritance theft can involve the criminal offence of theft, but might also refer to forgery of a will or misappropriation of estate or trust property. It is a serious issue that can occur during estate administration or trust administration when beneficiaries or other parties unlawfully take for themselves estate assets, funds or property which were intended to benefit someone else.

Whether you are the sole executor of an estate, a beneficiary, a trustee or a concerned family member, it is important to be aware of the signs of inheritance theft and know how to prove it.

We will consider signs to look out for, legal remedies available to victims, and most importantly, how to gather evidence and prove your case. By being proactive and informed, you can protect your estate assets and ensure that the wishes of the deceased are respected.

Types of inheritance theft

Inheritance theft can take many forms, from manipulating a will to forging documents or stealing physical property. This can include actions such as hiding or destroying a will, transferring assets into someone else’s name or using estate funds for personal gain. If, for example, an executor or trustee transferred assets out of an estate or trust fund to themselves or transferred property to themselves, that would be misappropriation of estate or trust property.

It is important to understand the types of inheritance theft that can arise in order to recognise potential cases and take appropriate action.

Signs of inheritance theft

There are several signs that may indicate potential inheritance theft, including:

  1. Missing or altered documents: if important estate documents such as a will, trust or power of attorney suddenly go missing, or if they appear to have been altered.

  2. Unexplained changes to estate planning: if the deceased's estate planning documents were recently changed in a way that is unexpected or unexplained.

  3. Missing or undervalued assets: if certain estate assets or funds are unaccounted for or appear to have been undervalued.

  4. Unusual financial activity: if there are sudden or unusual withdrawals or transfers of estate funds.

  5. Suspicious behaviour from beneficiaries or others: if beneficiaries or other parties involved in estate administration exhibit suspicious behaviour, such as avoiding communication or being defensive when questioned about estate assets.

Legal remedies for inheritance theft

If you suspect that inheritance theft has occurred, there are several legal remedies available to help you recover stolen estate assets. 

These may include:

  1. Civil litigation: you can bring a civil claim against the responsible party to recover stolen estate assets or funds.

  2. Criminal prosecution: if the theft constitutes a criminal offence, you can report it to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service or, under certain circumstances, you personally, may pursue criminal charges against the responsible party.

  3. Probate challenge: you may make an application challenging an application for probate and obtain a caveat, which prevents probate from being granted.

  4. Mediation: you can work with a mediator to try to resolve the issue outside of court.

It is important to work with an experienced legal professional to determine which legal remedy is appropriate for your specific case. As experienced solicitors advising on will disputes and trust dipsutes, we can help you gather evidence and build a strong case to recover stolen estate assets and hold the responsible party accountable for their actions.

How to prove inheritance theft

Proving inheritance theft can be challenging, but there are steps you can take to gather evidence and support your case. Here are some key pieces of evidence that can help you prove inheritance theft:

  1. Estate planning documents: the deceased's will, trust and other estate planning documents can provide valuable evidence of their wishes and how their assets were meant to be distributed.

  2. Financial records: bank statements, tax returns and other financial records can help establish what estate assets and funds existed and how they were used.

  3. Witness evidence: witnesses who were present during estate administration or who have knowledge of the deceased's wishes can provide valuable evidence to support your case.

  4. Forensic accounting evidence: forensic accounting analysis of estate documents or can reveal tampering or other signs of fraud.

Why inheritance theft happens

Inheritance theft can occur for many reasons. Some common reasons why inheritance theft occurs include:

  1. Greed: family members, friends or beneficiaries may be motivated by greed and feel that they deserve a larger share of the estate.

  2. Jealousy: a family member or friend may feel jealous of another beneficiary's relationship with the deceased and seek to take assets that they believe should be rightfully theirs.

  3. Resentment: a family member who feels that they have been treated unfairly during the deceased's lifetime may seek to take what they feel is owed to them through inheritance theft.

  4. Financial problems: a family member or friend who is in financial distress may see an opportunity to take estate funds or assets to alleviate their own financial problems.

  5. Lack of estate planning: if the deceased did not have clear and comprehensive estate planning documents in place such as a will, letter of wishes or trust, family members may dispute the distribution of assets and seek to take more than their fair share.

What are the types of inheritance fraud that might arise?

Inheritance fraud can take many forms. Some common types include:

  1. Forgery and counterfeiting: this occurs when someone forges the deceased's signature on estate planning documents, such as a will or trust.

  2. Undue influence: an individual manipulates the deceased into changing their estate planning documents to benefit themself.

  3. Asset hiding, concealment or removal: a family member, friend or beneficiary hides estate assets with the intention of keeping them from other beneficiaries.

  4. Executor fraud: an executor of an estate mismanages estate funds, steals assets or pays themself excessive fees.

  5. Trustee fraud: a trutee mismanges trust fund, steals assets or pays themself excessive fees.

  6. Beneficiary fraud: this occurs when a beneficiary of an estate lies to the court or other beneficiaries about his or her right to receive estate assets or funds.

For expert advice on dealing with inheritance theft, contact us here

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