California Estate Fraud Lawyer
When a person’s estate is placed under another person’s control because of death or incapacity, the decisions about administering the estate may raise questions and concerns. When queries about the disposition of money or other assets indicate fraud or wrongdoing, a formal investigation and legal action may be necessary.
If you suspect that the executor or trustee of an estate of which you are a beneficiary has misused, hidden or lied about assets of the estate, it is time for you to speak to an estate fraud lawyer. With the help of a qualified attorney in California, heirs can sue an executor or trustee acting in bad faith for breach of fiduciary duties and estate fraud. Through surcharge litigation, you may be able to recover misappropriated funds and have a bad actor removed from authority over the estate in favor of a better-qualified individual(s).
The attorneys at Albertson & Davidson, LLP help individuals and families in California challenge estate administration and uncover estate theft and fraud. Our attorneys have extensive litigation experience in courtrooms throughout California and have recovered more than $130 million in court verdicts and settlements for our clients.
Let the California estate fraud attorneys at Albertson & Davidson, LLP review the records of what is going on with your loved one’s assets. We know the questions to ask about estate administration in California, how to spot fraud and when a lawsuit is appropriate to hold a bad trustee or estate administrator accountable. Call (800) 601-0170 to reach a California estate fraud litigation lawyer today.
What is Estate Fraud and How is Estate Fraud Identified?
The executor or trustee of an estate has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the estate. The executor or trustee has a duty to invest and/or distribute estate (or trust) assets solely in the interest of the beneficiaries and without favor for any beneficiary over another. Trustees and executors have a duty to provide complete and accurate information as to the disposal or acquisition of assets and for other transactions within or by the estate.
Failure to fulfill these duties, and in particular misusing money or accounts, may constitute acts of fraud. Sometimes there are rational explanations for odd accounting measures or unexpected changes in holdings. But fraud is usually identifiable by how it enriches or favors one party – typically an executor or trustee or another beneficiary – at the expense of other parties to the estate.
At its most basic level, estate fraud is theft of estate assets. It may involve removal of an asset or sum of money from the estate in a single act or misuse of smaller amounts of money over a period of time. An estate fraud lawsuit may be used to challenge an estate or trust, but it can be difficult to prove.
Examples of fraud include:
- Self-dealing, or sale or purchase of assets that specifically benefit the executor or trustee.
- Commingling of estate assets with the executor’s, which is ultimately misuse of estate assets.
- Losses created by the executor’s wrongful acts or omissions.
The following may be red flags indicating possible fraud in the administration of an estate:
- Changes to a will, trust, or power of attorney when the principal’s death is imminent.
- A will that was not drafted by an attorney or signed in the presence of an attorney or notary.
- Multiple wills executed.
- A spouse or child being excluded from the will for no apparent reason.
- Destruction of the single known copy of the will, leading to intestate succession and reinstatement of a disinherited spouse, child, or sibling.
- A will that does not accurately reflect the decedent’s estate.
- Known or anticipated holdings of the decedent’s estate that are missing.
- Changes in the beneficiary designation on insurance or inheritable accounts, to the benefit of a family friend, home health care worker, or financial advisor.
- The decedent’s over-dependence on a beneficiary for basic quality-of-life items or assistance.
- Substantial gifts made just prior to the decedent’s passing.
- Assets removed from the estate through the power of attorney.
- The executor’s delay or failure to execute estate administration filings, which may be to cover up manipulation of assets.
Estate Fraud through Probate Fraud
The transfer of a deceased person’s assets occurs in a legal process known as probate. If there is a will, it will name an executor of the estate, who will be in charge of various issues related to settling the estate. These include ensuring debts and taxes are paid, collecting money owed the estate, and reporting to the court as the estate is dissolved and closed. But primarily, the executor ensures that assets of the estate are divided and distributed as required by the will.
When an estate is in probate, it may be subjected to attempted fraud via:
- Will contest. A party may seek to have the will ruled invalid. If the will contest is successful, the assets would then be distributed according to California law for intestate succession, which dictates the order in which family members have access to assets.
- Former will submission. A party may seek to introduce a previous version of the will. If it is ruled valid, they might receive property not designated for them in the later version.
- False codicil. A codicil is a document that makes a change to an executed will. A party might introduce a false codicil that would change inheritance as stated in the accepted version of the will.
- False claims on the estate. A party may contact the estate administrator or a beneficiary and claim the deceased owed money or there is a probate-related fee, or that the deceased left a large sum of money that can only be released if the beneficiary or executor makes a payment. These are typically scams not connected to beneficiaries of the estate.
How We Can Help You Find and Fight Estate Fraud
Not everything that looks out of the ordinary in the administration of an estate is fraud. The executor of an estate may be privy to information that you do not have. The executor is working according to rules that are new to him or her. However, if you have noted multiple irregularities or lapses, or the executor of your loved one’s estate has avoided your questions, then you are probably correct to ask an independent party with knowledge of California will, trust and probate law to look into the situation.
After speaking to you about your concerns, our attorney would seek to review the decedent’s will, the statement of authority for a trust and/or other documents filed as part of probate and administration of the estate. If necessary, we would enlist the assistance of certified forensic accountants we regularly work with to follow the money.
Forensic accountants can identify any discrepancies or improprieties in estate expenditures or investments or the sale or distribution of assets. We could also subpoena other necessary records for examination, such as bank statements, credit card statements, or tax documents.
If we were to find evidence to substantiate the fact that the executor and/or another party was operating with fraudulent intent, we would seek an order from the Probate Court forcing the executor of the estate to provide a full accounting. This formal report would provide detailed information on every estate asset and justify every expense and payment.
If there are discrepancies, then surcharge litigation can be used to ask the Probate Court to hold a California executor or trustee financially responsible for damage to a beneficiary’s inheritance. If the judge finds there has been a breach of fiduciary duty that caused financial damages, the judge could order the executor to refund the money to the estate from his or her personal funds.
The judge would also strip the executor of their oversight of the estate and appoint a new administrator.
In cases of fraud – meaning there was intent as distinguished from an executor’s mistakes due to ignorance or incompetence – criminal charges might follow a civil ruling.
Contact Our California Estate Fraud Lawyers
Albertson & Davidson, LLP has helped many beneficiaries preserve their inheritance when facing fraudulent and negligent administration of wills and trusts in California. If an executor or trustee of an estate that you are a beneficiary of has neglected their legal obligations or sought unjust financial gain through their position, contact us now to help you fight to protect your inheritance.
Our in-depth knowledge of California estate and trust law and courtroom experience are essential to holding accountable bad estate executors, trustees, and attorneys-in-fact who have been granted powers of attorney. We have the necessary litigation experience to fight estate fraud in a trial, if necessary, to make things right for you.
California’s laws governing probate and estate fraud litigation are complicated. At Albertson & Davidson, we are aggressive trial attorneys who focus solely on these types of complex cases involving trusts and estates. We stand. We fight. We win.