A person’s estate is the sum total of all the assets and property that they own. An estate is usually itemized through estate planning so that the assets may be distributed to recipients upon death or severe illness of the estate holder. “Estate looting” occurs where a person uses illegal means to gain access to another person’s estate. The estate “looter” is usually a relative or close friend of the estate holder, and may have knowledge of exactly what assets and how much money the person is holding. 

Estate looters often take advantages of situations where the estate holder is elderly, or is mentally unable to make decisions due to illness, especially if the person possesses much wealth. There are several laws that create mechanisms to help prevent estate looting, such as requiring witnesses to be present during signing a will or any other testamentary instrument. Thus, estate looting usually involves attempts to circumvent or avoid formal estate procedures and multiple acts that are part of an overall scheme to steal the assets.  

How Does Estate Looting Occur?

Estate looting can involve a series of acts that are all interconnected. It can involve one or even several people who may be part of an overall scheme. Some of the various acts which are involved in estate looting can include:

  • Undue influence: This is where the defendant exercises an inappropriate influence on the estate holder. For example, they may use threats of force or financial aggression to influence the way the estate holder drafts their will.
  • Fraud: The looter may make a fraudulent representation regarding themselves or other parties interested in the estate. This can include providing fraudulent information or statements that would mislead the estate holder
  • Forgery: This can include falsifying a signature, or providing fake documents
  • Larceny: The defendant may often simply physically steal the property
  • Unauthorized changes: The estate looter may seek to illegally modify a will or other documents to redistribute the property differently

What Are the Penalties for Estate Looting?

Since so many different types of crimes may be involved in estate looting, the consequences may be very great. The penalties usually involve fines and potential jail time. However, multiple or repeat offenses may result in felony charges, which carry such consequences as heavier fines, and possible time in prison. If several different looters are involved in an overall fraud scheme, they may be held liable for the acts of the other defendants under a conspiracy theory

How Can I Protect Myself against Estate Looting?

Estate looting happens mostly because the holder of the estate has become ill or incapacitated due to age. Therefore, the best measure to protect against looting is to plan an estate while still mentally competent to make decisions.  Some other steps to take are:

  • Appoint a competent person to manage your estate: This may involve creating a power of attorney with instructions regarding how to manage an estate.
  • Research state laws: Every state has different laws governing estates, wills, and trusts. Conducting some basic research can help in estate planning
  • Consult with a lawyer: A lawyer can help draft the necessary documents to protect an estate.

Finally, understand that estate looters often act according to very personal motivations.  For example, a person’s greed may drive them to take unscrupulous actions, or, often times the estate looter may not even wish to take the assets for themselves. Instead, the looter may be trying to prevent an heir - such as an ex-spouse - from receiving their inheritance.

Therefore, being aware of any inner conflicts within a family is vital.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Estate planning is a very complex and comprehensive process, as it involves a person’s entire list of assets and financial savings. Hiring an estate lawyer can be very useful at every step of the process, whether it be document drafting, signing, or handling distributions.