What Is Inheritance Theft (and How Can You Protect Your Money)

If you have money, property, or other assets to pass down when you die—or if you’re a beneficiary expecting an inheritance from a relative—you want to make sure all gets distributed according to plan.

But it’s not unheard of for family conflict to complicate or completely derail the allocation of an inheritance—and this can even devolve into a type of theft known as “inheritance theft,” or “inheritance hijacking,” which could be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. So what exactly does it involve, and how can you protect your money?

What is inheritance hijacking?

Inheritance theft may occur in a variety of ways:

  • Stealing, destroying, or forging trust or will documents.
  • Coercing or using undue influence (part of which involves “excessive persuasion”) to convince someone to change their will or trust.
  • Stealing, hiding, or diverting assets from an estate or for personal gain.
  • Abusing power of attorney authority.
  • Charging excessive fees for services related to executor or trustee duties.
  • Marrying under false pretenses for the purpose of benefiting from an inheritance.

While inheritance theft can be perpetrated by professionals aiding in estate planning or execution, it’s more likely to occur within a family or among close caretakers. Emotional manipulation is one common tactic, and usually involves a family member who is after someone’s assets trying to get closer to that person, often by doing them favors. Similarly, family members may bad mouth each other to convince the person to reallocate their inheritance.

Note that stealing assets from an older adult or forging documents related to finances is considered a form of elder abuse.

How to protect your assets from hijacking

First and foremost, start your estate planning process early, and with the help of a lawyer who specializes in this area. An experienced attorney can help you draft a sound estate planning agreement. Keep multiple sets of extensive records of anything related to your estate, and discuss your wishes clearly with those involved.

You may also consider distributing assets early so they are dispersed the way you want, says Jason Porter, a UK-based senior investment manager with Scottish Heritage SG. This could prevent coercion or diversion, though you’ll want to work with a tax prep expert to understand the impact of large gifts.

Again, because emotional manipulation among relatives is a more likely scenario than any sort of professional theft or fraud, employing legal and financial professionals who specialize in estate planning can be your best protection. You may also consider having multiple executors who are accountable for distributing your assets according to your estate plan.

How to protect your inheritance

Let’s say you’re an heir, and we’ll assume you have the best intentions to honor a relative’s wishes and be above board legally. You can watch for family members acting weird or cozying up to a relative they’ve had a lot of conflict with. Financial abuse and exploitation—mismanagement or misuse of money—can be difficult to spot, but warning signs may also include sudden changes in banking, large or unexplained withdrawals or asset transfers, and unpaid bills.

The laws governing inheritance theft and the penalties for violations vary by state, but if you suspect this is occurring, an estate planning attorney or forensic accountant can help you pursue these concerns. You can also report elder abuse to your state agency.

By: Emily Long

Source: How to Stop Someone From Stealing Your Inheritance


The reason we create estate plans and wills is that we want to feel assured that our assets will pass on to the intended recipients. Unfortunately, our best-laid plans can go awry when Inheritance Hijacking occurs. One of the most frustrating things about inheritance theft is that it is often committed by relatives. This not only means that their actions can ruin family relations, but also that they are likely to get away with it if no proper measures are in place.

You can increase the odds that your assets reach the intended parties after you die if you take certain steps now. For example, it can be useful to discuss your estate plan with all your intended heirs present at the same time. This way, you can ensure that everyone is on the same page, making it much more difficult for the various forms of will hijacking to occur.

Ensuring that you have an attorney involved who will also be able to assist the family can help keep conversations consistent, and diminish the ability for anyone to fabricate what was said or what was intended. 

You may also want to appoint two executors to your estate. This can reduce the chances that anyone will abuse their position. It can be especially helpful to nominate a non-family professional as one of the two executors.

It is also worth considering giving assets to your heirs before you die. Not only will this keep family members from fighting over them after you are gone, but you will also get to witness your heirs enjoying your gifts while you are still around.

It can be quite difficult to prove your case if you don’t know when the theft happened or aren’t sure who is to blame. You will need to do some detective work to get the evidence you require to prove your claim in court.

If you suspect something has been stolen but aren’t sure what it is, you’ll need to conduct your own inventory of the decedent’s estate. You may notice large withdrawals from bank accounts or changes in beneficiaries with life insurance policies, retirement accounts, or of other assets. If someone else is named as the beneficiary instead of the family member or if a title was transferred to another person, you will likely need to prove that the decedent was coerced into making those changes or manipulated by someone stealing your rightful inheritance.

If the theft was of money from a business or other fraudulent activity, you may need a forensic accountant to go through the records. Of course, you won’t need to take care of all this yourself. Your probate attorney will hire someone with experience in this area.

For physical items, you may have difficulty proving the person has possession of it. If the theft is of real property or large items, such as their classic cars, the title or deed would have to be changed. You would need to prove that the decedent was manipulated or threatened into giving them the property.

For smaller missing items, you may have difficulty proving they exist. If they have significant value, these items may have been insured, such as with expensive jewelry or artwork. Many times, the thief will sell these assets quickly to get the money and remove the item from their possession.

An estate plan that is prepared in collaboration with an experienced Santa Cruz will and trust attorney is much less susceptible to inheritance hijacking than one that you prepare yourself. A seasoned lawyer can help you arrange your estate plan in a way that protects your interests and those of your heirs, leaving far less room for confusion and making it much less likely that your will could be successfully contested.

If you would like professional assistance with this process, we invite you to contact our Santa Cruz office or one of our offices located throughout the state of California by calling (800) 244-8814.

Related contents:


Inheritance Hijacking Defined

Inheritance Hijackers: Who Wants to Steal Your Inheritance and How to Protect It

Blood & Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance and What To Do About It

Inheritance Theft: Coping With Family Betrayal

Protecting Yourself From Inheritance Theft

How to Stop Inheritance Theft and Protect Your Rights

How to Recover Stolen Inheritance – Probate Advance

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