Learn about the ways that someone can manipulate estate documents and how your family can properly handle it.
Q: Three years before my mother died, she prepared a last will that distributed her assets equally to each her four children. After she died, in his attempt to disinherit everyone but himself, my brother produced a new last will that left everything to him. He used it to file a probate. The new will was prepared the day before my mother died. We learned of the new will when we each received a letter from the probate attorney naming our brother personal representative and sole heir. What actions can my siblings and I take to prove the new will is fraudulent?
A: Inheritance wars are like the scares that occur during Halloween Fright Night, when hibernating rivalries between siblings surface from their sleepy hollows like headless horsemen intent upon decapitating the rights of other beneficiaries and stealing it as their own. Naively, parents believe their children profoundly love one another without any idea that animosity, bitterness and bad blood between siblings over perceived wrongs from their distant pasts can erupt into future hostility.
Hostility begins when parents choose one child they believe will be the most responsible as executor of their estate and will distribute the assets to beneficiaries according to the parent’s wishes. Unfortunately, more often than imaginable, an executor manipulates, forges, recreates or disposes of original will documents to gain a larger portion, if not all, of the estate inheritance.
Sadly, in today’s electronic age, it’s easy to manipulate estate documents. There are many signs of fraudulent manipulation by an executor or beneficiary intending to steal from others named to receive inheritance. Consider the following examples of fraudulent actions that signify dishonest behavior by beneficiaries or non-beneficiaries.
- Deliberately Disposing of a Will to force a court decision. If one child learns their inheritance is less than that of another sibling, simply destroying a last will forces the court to make the final decision of inheritance distribution and will most often include the disinherited child.
- Fraudulently Changing Pages Within a Will to benefit one beneficiary over another. In today’s electronic age it’s not difficult to reproduce pages and language of existing documents. It may only require a single page change to the language of beneficiary distribution.
- Preparing a Fraudulent Will, Changing Pages or Forging Signatures. In this age of computers, scanners, graphic computer software and colored printers, it has become easy to prepare documents, change pages to a set of documents, scan a person’s signature and manipulate the signatures into color so they appear original.
Precautions can be taken to prevent someone from committing estate fraud. Consider appointing two executors, discussing your estate plan with family members or beneficiaries who are included in your will, and notifying beneficiaries about the inheritance specifics.
If you suspect estate fraud, you should immediately contact a probate litigation attorney to represent you against the dishonest headless horseman to prevent them from stealing the family inheritance and disappearing as a spirit into the night.