An estate consists of a person’s property such as personal items, bank accounts, real estate, and stocks and securities. When someone dies, the estate plan that they drafted prior to their death will dictate how that property is to be managed and distributed. Although estate planning primarily addresses the division of property, it may also address other issues such as who will make legal and financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated, and who will take over your business interests.

Estate looting, or estate fraud, occurs when a person utilizes illegal means in order to gain access to another person’s estate. The estate’s “looter” is typically a relative or close friend of the estate holder, and generally has knowledge of exactly which assets and how much money the estate holder possesses. A person’s estate is the sum total of all of the assets and property that they own, and is usually itemized through estate planning. Estate planning ensures that the assets are distributed to its recipients upon the death or severe illness of the estate’s owner.

Estate looters often take advantage of situations in which the estate owner is elderly, mentally unable to make their own decisions due to their condition, or if the estate owner possesses much wealth. In order to help prevent estate looting, there are several laws in place that create mechanisms such as requiring witnesses to be present during the signing of a will. As such, estate looting typically involves attempts to bypass or avoid all formal estate procedures. Estate looting also utilizes other acts that are part of an overall scheme with the goal of stealing the estate’s assets.

How Does Estate Looting Occur? Are There Any Penalties for Estate Looting?

As estate looting can involve a series of acts all interconnected, estate looting can involve just one or several people who are part of a larger overall scheme. Some of the most common acts involved in estate looting include:

  • Undue Influence: This refers to a person unduly influencing another person during the estate planning process. This is an amount of influence that causes the owner of the estate to act other than by their own free will or choice. The defendant may use threats of force or financial aggression in order to influence how the estate holder drafts their will;
  • Fraud: The estate’s looter could fraudulently represent themselves or other parties interested in the estate. An example of this would be providing fraudulent information or statements that were intended to mislead the estate holder. Fraud such as this could be considered criminal fraud, or a white collar crime. Simply put, if someone knowingly lies about an important or key fact in regards to a transaction or relationship, and the other party relies on that false information then suffers some kind of harm, it is a case of fraud;
  • Forgery: Forgery is another example of a white collar crime that is typically defined as the creation, alteration, forging, or imitation of any document while intending to defraud another person. In the instance of estate looting, this could include falsifying a signature on a will or other testamentary document. Estate looting involving forgery could also include providing fake documents;
  • Larceny: Larceny refers to a type of theft in which the accused person takes and carries away the property of another person, with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of that property. In the context of estate looting, the looter may simply physically steal the estate owner’s property; and
  • Unauthorized Changes: Sometimes a will may need to be modified in order to better meet the needs of the estate owner. An estate looter may attempt to illegally modify the estate owner’s will, or other documents, in an effort to redistribute the property differently.

As you can see, there are several different types of crimes that may be committed while also committing the crime of estate looting. Because of this, the legal consequences for estate looting can be severe, as the looter is being punished for every crime associated with the crime of looting. These penalties typically include jail time and fines, and multiple or repeat offenses could lead to felony charges.

Felony charges carry significantly heftier fines and potential prison sentencing. If several different looters are involved in one overall fraud scheme, they could be held liable for the acts of the other defendants under a criminal conspiracy theory.

How Can I Protect My Estate From Estate Looting?

As previously mentioned, estate looting generally occurs when an estate owner is ill or incapacitated, such as due to age. The best measure to protect against estate looting is to conduct your estate planning while you are still mentally competent and can make your own decisions with little outside influence. Along with that, you should appoint a competent and trusted person to manage your estate. This could involve creating a power of attorney that contains specific instructions regarding how you wish your estate to be managed.

Additionally, every state has its own laws regarding estates, wills, and trusts. You should research your state’s laws that govern estates and wills, as this can assist in your estate planning. It is imperative that your will or other testamentary document be legal, and therefore legally enforceable, so understanding your state’s laws will help ensure you are making the best possible choices for your estate.

It is important to understand that estate looters often have very personal motivators. They could be acting out of greed, or wish to deprive an heir, such as an ex spouse, from receiving their inheritance. Because of this, it is important to be aware of any internal conflicts within the family and prepare your estate with that in mind.

Do I Need an Attorney for Estate Looting?

An attorney can help draft the necessary documents in order to protect an estate. Consulting with a skilled and knowledgeable estate attorney can help prevent estate looting, as well as ensure that your will is legal and enforceable. An experienced estate attorney can be useful at every step of the estate planning process, from document drafting to distributing your estate.