Probate fraud is an age-old issue, but one that is taking a variety of new forms in the digital age. I hope this article will help the unwary executor spot and avoid these traps and also an unwitting beneficiary from falling victim.
Types of Frauds Against Beneficiaries
It is a sad fact that within the course of administering an estate, a variety of opportunities present themselves for an unscrupulous executor to make a quick and dirty buck.
Executors are often the first people on hand to empty a persons house, and cash hoards and valuable items can, and do, sadly go missing.
I have also known executors who fail to notify a beneficiary of their entitlement and simply pocket cash or items for themselves.
In more extreme cases, Wills are destroyed or forged after the event to change the beneficiaries of the estate.
One of the reasons that fraud is so common in estates is that there is very little oversight to the actions of an executor and therefore great temptation for an ‘bad ‘un’. Even people of ‘previous good character’ can find the heady mix of unsupervised access to (often lots of) cash, hard to resist.
Likewise, people are often quite secretive about their property and financial affairs, perhaps only making their executors aware of the exact extent of their estate and sometimes not even them. Moreover, it is typical that you are the only person who is aware of the contents of your Will. If only your executors then know what you’ve got, and what you want to happen to your estate, then it increases the temptation and therefore the chances for a fraud on their part.
Avoiding Frauds Against Beneficiaries
Sadly, mitigating these frauds is far from straightforward.
If you believe you might be the beneficiary of someone’s Will but can’t obtain a copy, then it is entirely possible to order one online here.
However, that will only work if that Will has been admitted to probate (in other words, if the estate was sufficiently large or constituted such that it required a Grant of Probate to deal with it).
Having your Will professionally drawn will help to some extent if a 3rd party later tries to forge another. In that case, the solicitor’s detailed attendance note can shed light on your wishes and can therefore be used to draw inferences about any later ‘home-made’ Will. But this might still require costly litigation to overturn.
Leaving a list of your assets with both your executors and other beneficiaries can avoid the concealment of those assets by dodgy executors. However, there are often compelling reasons why you would not wish to do this.
In my view, the most robust defence is to name professional executors. Naturally I might be biased towards a professional administration, but it is the only way you can be sure your exact wishes will be carried through and every penny gathered in for the benefit of your family.
Sadly, that is not to say that solicitors are never tempted by the ‘easy target’ of an estate. However, at least if you have used a regulated practice, the solicitors actions are insured.
Types of Frauds Against Executors
For most lay executors, administering an estate is an entirely foreign affair. It is perhaps one of the few, if not only, occasions you will have to undergo full compliance with HMRC, often settling vasts sums in inheritance, capital gains and income tax. It is also one of the few times when a person might have direct access to considerable sums of cash.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that fraudsters are increasingly targeting executors, especially given the evolution and relative ease of cybercrime
Popular scams against executors include impersonation scams, where fraudsters pretend to be from trusted organisations such as government agencies, HMRC, or law firms. These have seen the biggest increase of any type of scam.
I have personally been targeted by 3 such scams in the past year, which have been reasonably sophisticated. These were all from companies purporting to be debt collection firms.
Such firms are extremely common in estate administration and prey on the idea that an executor is unlikely to be intimately aware of every debt in an estate. One such letter I received indicated that the deceased had a historic credit card debt of a few hundred pounds. The sender was an entirely legitimate collection agency. In these circumstances it is easy to see why many lay executors might simply pay the creditor and have done. I wrote to the firm, asking for further details of the historic debt. At that stage I received a call from a clearly rather overwhelmed agent, advising that their company details had been appropriated by fraudsters, and they had recently received hundreds of such letters from solicitors all over the Country.
As the public becomes more clued up about these various scams, the scams themselves evolve in sophistication. Scam correspondence could now include official letterheads, registered offices, domain names, and genuine law firm details.
Avoiding Frauds Against Executors
The short answer is to carry out as many checks as possible in relation to any suspect information. Check the company website online and dial their official number to check that a letter is really from them with the same applying to any correspondence from law firms purporting to administer an estate. If you don’t personally know each beneficiary, ask them to provide formal ID and to confirm any bank details in writing rather than email.
If you believe you have been subject to any form of probate fraud and wish to discuss your options, please do not hesitate to contact Alex Stanier on 01494 893 533.