What is inheritance hijacking and why is it a problem to us all?

[This article is an excerpt from INHERITANCE HIJACKERS: Who Wants to Steal Your Inheritance and How to Protect It, authored by Robert C. Adamski]

Hijackers take control of an inheritance and divert it to an unintended recipient.

Inheritance theft is similar to hijacking a truck. A person intends to transfer something-in this case wealth-to an intended recipient. However, the hijacker takes control of the wealth while it is on route to the intended recipient via a will, estate, or other means. Then the hijacker intentionally diverts the wealth to an unintended recipient. The unintended recipient of the inheritance may be the hijacker or another person, such as the hijacker's spouse or child.

The hijacked asset(s) need not be an entire estate. It may be a single bank account, annuity, insurance policy, retirement account, parcel of real estate, antiques, coin collection, jewelry, or other valuable asset. To complicate matters, the intended recipient may never know a hijacking has occurred.

One hundred trillion dollars will pass by inheritance in the next twenty years. It is estimated there are twenty-five trillion dollars in retirement accounts alone. Three to five times that amount is held outside retirement accounts and will pass through inheritance in the same time period.

How much of this vast wealth will be hijacked and diverted to unintended recipients? The amount is impossible to accurately quantify. There are no statistics. Many hijackings are never detected by the victims. These undiscovered crimes alone will total trillions in wrongly diverted inheritances. It is not an exaggeration to say that every family has been or will be affected by an attempted or successful inheritance theft. These thefts are widespread and, when they are discovered, seldom revealed to those outside the small group of affected family members.

A fair question is, "How is it possible to hijack trillions of dollars?" and "Who are these people who allow their inheritances to be hijacked?" You may believe that you, an intelligent person with a good education and happy family situation, will never be a victim of a hijacking.

The answer is that a hijacking is easily accomplished and no one is absolutely safe. Rich and poor alike are potential victims. The most robust, intelligent people can easily be victims, as well as the infirm or feebleminded. Hijacking is simply the act of diverting assets from the intended recipient to another person, and the opportunity to divert assets presents itself quite often.

Most people intending to make a gift by inheritance at their death are inexperienced and may have neglected to properly safeguard their intended gift. Likewise, those expecting the inheritance often have little or no experience with death and passing wealth from one generation to the next. The lack of experience leads to lack of awareness, which offers opportunity to the hijacker.

The crime is all the more difficult to detect because hijackers never use physical violence to accomplish their goals. Violence is easily discovered and punished. The hijacker's behavior usually consists of whispered lies, quiet fraud, forgery, or psychological influence. These acts are not easily discovered, difficult to prove, and rarely punished by the criminal courts.

This book reveals the dangers and challenges you face when intending to gift an inheritance or when receiving an inheritance. There are many valuable lessons and surprises.

Recent societal changes have contributed to increasing inheritance theft.

American society has changed considerably in the last thirty years in ways that decrease communication, socialization, and supervision among family members. This increases hijacking opportunities. As a whole, our population has become:

  • More transient and mobile. Family members live farther apart than ever before and are often scattered throughout the country and the world. This greatly reduces the opportunity for communication, socialization, and supervision. A family member may be alone and unguarded by loved ones when he or she becomes weak and possible prey for a hijacker.
  • More likely to divorce. When married couples divorce, family members are divided. Relationships are strained and sometimes turn hostile. Second marriages and blended families increase tension in relationships. Loyalties shift among family members. Many times people fall prey to lies and deceit.
  • More likely to live longer. Longevity is a blessing and a curse. Living to a ripe old age can be enjoyable. However, old age often brings isolation, depression, loneliness, physical ills, and a decrease in mental ability if not Alzheimer's disease and dementia. These problems accelerate after the death of a spouse. The elderly and infirm are easily victimized, often when close to death.
  • More likely to crave active sexual relationships later in life. New products and medications allow aging adults to enjoy an active sex life almost indefinitely. Older men and women are now seeking out willing partners for the affection and human contact associated with those relationships. Many of these men and women will allow their needs to overwhelm their good sense and fall victim to a hijacker.
  • Wealthier. More people have more money than at any other time in history. Trillions of dollars will be transferred between generations in the next twenty years. This vast wealth provides more opportunities for the hijacker than at any time in the past.
  • More likely to accept bad legal advice, particularly over the Internet. The Internet is flooded with legal advice that is usually incomplete and sometimes erroneous. Often friends give well-meaning but misleading and dangerous advice. What may appear as a simple situation is often complex. It is a fact of life that legal situations require competent legal analysis, which can be provided only by an attorney trained to recognize all possible issues.

These factors increase our vulnerability to thieves and scoundrels as we age. Without sufficient planning and assistance, we all become victims inviting a hijacker and disaster.

Misplaced trust is often the root of the problem, and often impossible to avoid.

A wolf in sheep's clothing is the most common threat to an inheritance.

The most important element in the world of inheritances is placing trust in the proper person. Placing trust in the right people can prevent a hijacking. Conversely, misplaced trust gives a hijacker the opportunity he or she is looking for. Therefore, a frank discussion of who a person should and should not trust is very important.

I have asked thousands of clients, "Who will handle your money if you are unable to do so before your death?" and, "Who will administer your estate after your death?" These questions evoke strong feelings in almost every client. I can see they are internalizing the question and weighing the alternatives, deciding who can and cannot be trusted when they are unable to do for themselves.

The decision is often very difficult, even in what we consider to be model families. We all want and need to trust those who are closest to us in our lives. Without trust we would be lonely, isolated individuals dying from lack of human contact. When asked who they will trust, the client is deciding who will care for them if they are weak and vulnerable and unable to care for themselves. They will likely be unable to undo the decision later in life in their weakened state, perhaps being legally incompetent to make any changes, even if made for their own good. They are also deciding who can be trusted to distribute their worldly goods after they are gone, when they have absolutely no control. They ask themselves, "Who will do what's best for me in all situations and honor my intentions? Who will resist all temptation to steal the inheritance, even a small part of it?" These are often hard questions to answer.

Can you easily answer these questions for yourself? Or do you need to weigh the alternatives and pick the best of a weak group of choices? Do not be embarrassed if you cannot trust every one of your children or even your spouse as much as you would like. You are not alone. No family is perfect.

Even if you choose the most trustworthy person you know to handle your affairs, there is a good chance your worldly goods will end up in the wrong hands, even if you do your best to guard against it. I estimate, based on my almost thirty years of experience in this field, that you or someone in your family has been or will be a victim of inheritance theft. And the odds are that the thief is a family member.

Hijacking is a quiet crime flying under the radar.

You may suspect I am exaggerating and ask why this widespread problem is not general knowledge. Why are hijacked inheritances not well-publicized events? Why is a hijacking not as newsworthy as a bank robbery? Why are there no classes or seminars on how to avoid a hijacking?

I believe the answer is that a hijacking is not a dramatic sudden event that occurs in the public view. These are crimes committed in secret, behind closed doors, and out of the public view. They are generally family affairs, with the occasional close family friend playing the thief. In addition, as you will learn, the victims may never know they have been victimized.

Those who do realize they have been victimized will have a very difficult task, legally and psychologically, in recovering their lost inheritance. No one likes to air their dirty laundry in the newspapers. Victims are prone to blame themselves to some degree, or to be embarrassed or ashamed that a family member or close friend would steal from them. Sometimes the clever hijacker convinces the victim there was no theft or conceals the theft and remains undiscovered.

Compiling accurate statistics on inheritance theft is impossible. Inheritance theft cannot be summarized in a sound bite and neatly packaged for the evening news. Inheritance hijackers cannot be baited and arrested on television as a sexual predator can. Therefore, inheritance theft slips under the radar of the news media.

There have certainly been a few widely publicized inheritance cases. Howard Hughes and Anna Nicole Smith come to mind. These cases drew attention because of the huge size of the estates and the unusual characters involved. The typical inheritance hijacking involves much smaller amounts of money, and the characters are ordinary people leading ordinary lives, which isn't sensational enough to attract big media. Even if the amount hijacked is not newsworthy in the eyes of the news media, it is undoubtedly a great amount to the victim. One man's pocket change is another man's fortune.

Inheritance theft is not an area of the law highlighted in law school, although it should be-I know more than a few lawyers who make a very good living practicing in this area. I learned inheritance law through experience and by closely observing my clients and their family relationships for the past three decades. Saying that every family has been or will be touched by inheritance theft is not an exaggeration, as you will see.

Meet the players.

Every hijacking involves five elements.

  • The first victim or target is the "donor," the person who intends to give an inheritance. I call this person Target A.
  • The inheritance itself, which can be any single asset a person owns or an entire estate.
  • The second victim or target is the intended recipient of the inheritance. This victim may be a single person or a group such as the children of Target A. I call this victim Target B.
  • The hijacker, who is almost always a single person acting alone but in rare cases may be two or three conspirators. Conspiring is too complex to be a group activity.
  • The persons benefiting from the hijacking, who may be the hijacker or others, such as the hijacker's children.

In some situations, Target B may be unaware that he or she was to receive an inheritance and that it was diverted by the hijacker. For example, Millie makes a will that gives ten thousand dollars to each of her several nieces and nephews, and the balance of her estate to her only son. Millie does not tell anyone except her lawyer and her only son about the intended gifts to her nieces and nephews. Millie's son decides to cancel the gifts. Instead of asking his mother to change her will, he waits until she dies and destroys the will. Without a will, Millie's entire estate is inherited by her son. The nieces and nephews may grieve at Millie's death, but they will never know that Millie's son has hijacked their inheritances.

In every hijacking, the hijacker steals the assets Target A intended to transfer to Target B. Both victims have a legal claim against the hijacker. The intended recipient, Target B, is almost always the victim bringing suit against the hijacker. Why? Because Target A is deceased in most inheritance cases. It is my feeling that if the courts gave more weight to the wrong done to the donor of the gift, Target A, more cases would be decided against the hijackers.

If the hijacker strikes before Target A dies, the suit to recover the inheritance will be brought by Target A while he or she is alive. Here is an actual real-life example. An elderly aunt intends to give her home to her many nephews and nieces at her death, which is many years in the future. She chooses one nephew to handle her estate at her death. The nephew convinces his aunt to deed her house to him before her death to avoid probate after her death. The nephew then sues to evict her from her own house to enable him to sell the house for his own benefit. This is a clear case of elderly abuse and inheritance theft while Target A is alive. The aunt can sue to overturn the deed and will be successful. However, the lawsuit will be expensive, time consuming, and will tear the family apart.

A person is likely to become a Target A or B if they are

  • Infirm, physically or mentally, at any age;
  • Elderly and declining in physical and mental health;
  • Dependent on others, especially those needing constant personal care;
  • Subject to the influence of another person to act against their free will;
  • Prone to make assumptions about inheritance law without seeking professional legal advice;
  • Unwilling to make an estate plan;
  • Secretive about assets and intentions;
  • Grandiose and prone to making inheritance promises that cannot be fulfilled;
  • Making major changes in their life, such as divorcing or remarrying;
  • Estranged from family members, especially parents and children estranged from each other;

Without a spouse or direct descendants to inherit the estate. Hijackers can more easily influence targets who have no close ties to family members.

Just as there are two classes of victims, there are two classes of hijackers. The first is the hijacker who emerges from among the family members of the victims. These hijackers are motivated to utilize the hijacking to settle a family dispute or seek revenge against the victims for a past wrong. The second class of hijackers is comprised of non-family members, such as caregivers, spouses in a second marriage, friends from church, and interlopers of any sort. Ironically, even though these hijackers are strangers to the inheritance victim, it is often easier to guard against hijacking by a stranger than a family member.

The following is a list of the dozen most likely hijackers:

  • An overly friendly stranger assisting an elderly or infirm person often influences the elderly or infirm to give an inheritance, loan money, or make a large gift to them
  • Health care workers or others who provide assistance in the home often request loans and steal valuables
  • Extended family members, such as grandchildren and nieces or nephews of elderly persons, often identify an aging relation as a possible source of an inheritance
  • Family members who move in and take control of the living situation often take control of an inheritance as well
  • New love interests, especially when disparate ages are a factor, may not be in it solely for the love
  • Individual administrators of wills and trusts have great opportunity to plunder. This excludes reputable corporate administrators.
  • Financial planners and advisors who court the senior market can sell financial products detrimental to the customer
  • Those who constantly criticize another person may covet that person's inheritance and be attempting to influence others with their criticism
  • Anyone trusted with handling the money or accounts of another can easily embezzle assets
  • Laymen giving legal advice on inheritance issues often give advice to benefit themselves and harm others
  • A child who moves close to an elderly parent often inherits a disproportionate share of the estate, leaving the other children with less of an inheritance
  • Anyone with a power of attorney to act for another has the power to help themselves to the assets

How does the law treat a hijacking?

Hijacking an inheritance is clearly a theft and a crime. However, it is ignored by most agencies that prosecute criminal theft. These agencies are busy prosecuting easily identified crimes, such as armed robbery and burglary, also crimes of theft of property.

Theft of an inheritance is a white-collar crime, which is more difficult to prove than a violent act, such as a mugging. Often it is difficult to determine if a theft occurred at all. Theft of an inheritance is often accomplished using psychological influence over the victim, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove criminal intent. As a result, hijackers can act without fear of criminal prosecution for the most part. The worst fear the typical hijacker faces is the threat of a civil court suit, where he is forced to repay what he has stolen.

Once the hijacking is complete, victims must go to great lengths to recover their hijacked inheritance. Court battles are expensive and lengthy. Victims must finance their legal battle against the hijackers while the hijacker has access to the hijacked assets to defend himself.

Protecting against a hijacking

It is an unavoidable fact of life that we all must assume the risk that our inheritance may be hijacked. As a practical matter, it is impossible to absolutely protect yourself against inheritance theft.

One impractical but effective solution is to gift your wealth immediately and prematurely to your intended heirs. However, no one expecting to live at least a short time longer would immediately give all their assets to their intended beneficiaries and make themselves destitute. The giver would be forced to be dependent on the beneficiaries for their financial support. Even if the beneficiary is now trustworthy, there is no guarantee they will fulfill all of the financial obligations expected by the giver. Another reason not to gift wealth prematurely is the probable change to the family relationships that will cause the person making the gift to change the plan of distribution of the inheritance. Once the premature gift is complete, it will be all but impossible to reverse.

It is not enough to put the safety of an inheritance in the hands of professionals, such as lawyers or financial advisors. These professionals can help, but they cannot protect one from a determined hijacker who seizes on an opportunity unless the professionals are instructed to do every act possible to prevent theft. This instruction is never given to the professional. It is impractical to contract with a professional to take control of the estate and do every act possible to prevent a hijacking.

Trusting professionals may give one a false sense of security and cause one to drop his or her guard at a critical time. And, ironically, sometimes the trusted professional turns out to be the hijacker.

Chapter 7 of INHERITANCE HIJACKERS: Who Wants to Steal Your Inheritance and How to Protect It thoroughly discusses protecting your inheritance.

The most important weapon against inheritance theft is knowledge and understanding how your inheritance may be hijacked. A knowledgeable person is a powerful person. Now, begin the road to knowledge and understanding inheritance hijacking by taking the short course in estate planning offered on this site.

Click here to continue. Link needed here.