Inheritance Hijackers: Who Wants To Steal Your Inheritance And How To Protect It

At the recommendation of a client, I have recently started reading a fascinating book entitled Inheritance Hijackers:  Who Wants To Steal Your Inheritance And How To Protect It (Ovation Books 2009) written by a Florida attorney named Robert C. Adamski.  The book is primarily written for beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries of an inheritance.  Mr. Adamski's book sets forth an extensive discussion of the growing phenomenon which he calls "inheritance theft," and which of course is a primary component of what I do in my own law practice as well (representation of beneficiaries, but also fiduciaries such as trustees andexecutors, in estate, trust and probate litigation).  "Inheritance theft" is defined on page 2 of the book as "the act of diverting assets from the intended recipient to another person[.]" 


While the book is available for sale at Mr. Adamski's own website,, and I'm sure other places, a good overview of the phenomenon can be found below which is directly from a prior post by Mr. Adamski: 

1.  Who steals inheritances?

Inheritance theft is a crime of opportunity committed by those we place our trust in. These are family members, close associates, care givers and others we depend on as we grow older. Inheritance hijacking is always a surprise to the victim, who never expected a trusted family member or friend to betray their trust.

2.  Who are the victims of inheritance hijacking?

There are always two classes of victims. The first is the person who intended to give the inheritance. The second is the person or persons who were the intended recipient of the inheritance. As we age we are all potential victims because we become weaker in our physical and mental ability. We then are forced to rely upon and put our trust in others. This gives the trusted persons the opportunity to hijack our inheritance.

3.  How are inheritances hijacked?

The hijacker's bag of tricks includes undue influence, duress, forgery, theft by an administrator, marriage, and more. Administrators of probate estates and trusts are common hijackers. They have the opportunity and ability to take advantage. Marriage is the 'Silver Bullet" in the world of inheritance theft because it is all but impossible to overturn a marriage which hijacks an estate. Care givers earn the trust of their victims and as a result are often inheritance hijackers. An important element of inheritance theft is the trust which is gained by the hijacker and later betrayed. Without that element of trust it would be very difficult to hijack an inheritance.

4.  How can I determine if my inheritance is at risk?

Take the Inheritance Risk Quiz at www.ProtectYourEstate.Net to determine the risk to the inheritance you intend to give or the inheritance you expect to receive.

5.  How do I protect the inheritance I intend to give or the inheritance I expect to receive?

Self education and proper estate planning are the first steps. But it does not end there. It is vital to understand how inheritances are hijacked and how to guard against inheritance hijacking. The book, INHERITANCE HIJACKERS: Who Wants to Steal Your Inheritance and How to Protect It, was written to help people protect their families from inheritance theft. Learn more about the book at www.ProtectYourEstate.Net


I have not yet finished Mr. Adamski's book, but can already tell that I will be recommending it to beneficiary-clients, and potential clients, who anticipate possibly receiving inheritances.  The book contains an immense amount of valuable information for a very reasonable price. 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Removal Of A Trustee Under Arkansas Law

My previous blog post generally discussed principles associated with the removal of executors or personal representatives of an estate.  This post is similar except that it analyzes this issue in the context of trusts rather than estates.  Every trustee of a trust, and every beneficiary of a trust, should be aware of these principles as well.  

To remedy a breach of trust under the Arkansas Trust Code, the Court may:

(1) compel the trustee to perform the trustee’s duties;

(2) enjoin the trustee from committing a breach of trust;

(3) compel the trustee to redress a breach of trust by paying money, restoring property, or other means;

(4) order a trustee to account;

(5) appoint a special fiduciary to take possession of the trust property and administer the trust;

(6) suspend the trustee;

(7) remove the trustee as provided in § 28-73-706;

(8) reduce or deny compensation to the trustee;

(9) subject to §28-73-1012, void an act of the trustee, impose a lien or a constructive trust on property, or trace trust property wrongfully disposed of and recover the property or its proceeds, or

(10) order any other appropriate relief. 

See Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-1001(b).

Also, section 706 of the Trust Code further elaborates on the removal of an trustee:

(a) the settlor, a co-trustee, or a beneficiary may request the court to remove a trustee, or a trustee may be removed by the court on its own initiative.

(b) A court may remove a trustee if:

(1) the trustee has committed a serious breach of trust;

(2) lack of cooperation among co-trustees substantially impairs the administration of the trust;

(3) because of unfitness, unwillingness, or persistent failure of the trustee to administer the trust effectively, the court determines that removal of the trustee best serves the interests of the beneficiaries;

(4) there has been a substantial change of circumstances or removal is requested by all of the qualified beneficiaries, the court finds the removal of the trustee best serves the interests of all of the beneficiaries and is not inconsistent with a material purpose of the trust, and suitable co-trustee or successor trustee is available.

See Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-706(a) and (b) (emphasis added).

So, as one can tell the grounds for removal of a trustee are very broad.  Accordingly, similar to estates, those administering trusts in the State of Arkansas must take their duties seriously so as to avoid placing themselves in a situation in which their actions and inactions could be questioned.  Similarly, beneficiaries of a trust should be vigilant in monitoring the conduct of the trustee to ensure that they are properly doing their job.  In the appropriate case, Arkansas courts have not hesitated to remove trustees where the facts and circumstances warrant it. 

UPDATED: Sentencing Time In The Ultimate Wealth War: The Astor Family Fortune

As we are in the midst of the holiday season and families all around the world are coming together to enjoy each other's company for a few fun-filled days (or in some cases a couple of miserable hours), it can be a little disheartening to read about (much less write about) another wealth war in the news.  However, this one is pretty spicy, has a celebrity aspect to it (Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger were witnesses at the underlying trial), and even has some criminal twists and turns. 

Specifically, had an article today which contains one of the more extreme examples of an estate and trust battle.  I was vaguely familiar with Brooke Astor, or rather her last name due to her philanthropy, but became much more interested after hearing and reading of the unfortunate last few years of her life in which she was apparently taken advantage of by her only child.  Mrs. Astor's third husband, Vincent Astor, was a descendant of John Jacob Astor, whose fortune was accumulated in fur trading and real estate.  Mr. Astor was one of the first multimillionaires, and Mrs. Astor ultimately gave away almost $200 million to institutions and was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her generosity.  She passed away in 2007 with many more tens of millions in her portfolio. 

According to the article, Anthony Marshall, Mrs. Astor's son, apparently led a successful, well-regarded life until one of his own sons, Phillip Marshall, exposed his father's apparent abuse of his mother (Phillip's grandmother) and her wealth in the course of a 2006 civil suit.  The stealing of her fortune was evidently so bad that the 85 year old Marshall actually was convicted of crimes a couple of months ago after a 5 month long trial and now faces sentencing next week, along with an estate lawyer who was likewise convicted of shenanigans associated with Mrs. Astor's fortune.  The case is rather intriguing given the fact that celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and Al Roker have come to his defense and pleaded for leniency from the sentencing judge.  Only time will tell whether he actually receives it, as there were tales told at trial of Papa Marshall engaging in gamesmanship with respect to Mrs. Astor's will so as to benefit him over her favorite charities, stealing her artwork, and giving himself a million dollar raise for his efforts in managing her wealth. 

As a lawyer who has previously worked on many white collar criminal defense matters, I speak from some experience in stating that white collar crime is pretty rarely prosecuted.  The public seems to be more taken aback by crimes of drugs, sex, and violence, and therefore the politicians and the strapped resources of governmental officials are largely dedicated to prosecuting those types of crimes.  White collar crimes are also typically complex, document-intensive, and often go uncovered much less unprosecuted. 

The Astor/Marshall case, however, is one instance in which the facts and circumstances can occasionally be so bad that they warrant more than a civil suit and instead the intervention of criminal investigators.  I do not know why, for instance, stealing $100,000 from a relative by altering some documents is any less of a prosecutable crime than stealing a carton of cigarettes from a convenience store, but for some reason it seems like the latter is much more likely to receive the attention of the law enforcement authorities.  In any event, the Astor/Marshall case contains lessons for lawyers and wealthy individuals alike in ensuring that the estate planning and trust administration processes are as free of hanky-panky as possible. 

UPDATED:  According to, Phillip Marshall was sentenced to 1-3 years in prison, although he may be able to stay out of prison on bail pending appeal.  According to the New York Times, Mr. Marshall's lawyer apparently received the same sentence.

Avoiding Estate, Trust & Probate Litigation

Since one of my areas of practice is estate, trust & probate litigation, it is obviously not in my economic self-interest to counsel against getting involved in this type of litigation in the first place.  However, first and foremost is a lawyer's duty to his or her client, which while sometimes involves filing or defending a lawsuit can also mean trying to avoid that lawsuit altogether.  After all, Abraham Lincoln once advised:  "Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser---in fees, expenses and waste of time."  That is still generally solid advice, although sometimes the fight just cannot be avoided.

That said, U.S. News published a good little article over the Thanksgiving holiday entitled "8 Tips To Avoid Nasty Estate Surprises" which provides some good pointers for avoiding estate, trust & probate litigation.  In summary:

1.  Pick aa reputable, experienced lawyer who has not performed any work for any of the other beneficiaries.  Basically, you want an attorney who knows what they are doing in this area, who does not have a conflict of interest, and who will be representing your interests (only). 

2.  Pick an administrator who can get along with the family, maybe even a professional fiduciary (like a bank trust department) if no one else could practically fill this role.  This is a biggie---oftentimes when one beneficiary is chosen to act as executor or trustee it can cause consternation with respect to the other beneficiaries. 

3.  Talk about your intentions with family members before any will or trust is drafted, in order to preclude surprises and fights after death and making everyone aware of your plans and desires.  Open, honest communication can go a long way toward heading off battles over the family fortune. 

4.  Consider your state's laws and create trusts if necessary to bypass probate if it is particularly burdensome under applicable state law.  Again, our law firm engages in estate, trust & probate litigation---not estate planning---however we can refer you to some reputable attorneys in this area if needed.

5.  Update the will or trust often so that challenges are less likely.  One of the best ways to avoid litigation is to occasionally update your documents---under facts and circumstances (lots of objective, detached witnesses, etc.) demonstrating the absence of fraud and undue influence from others---so that it can be demonstrated you were polishing your estate and trust objectives up until the end your life.

6.  Be sure to title your assets properly so that the assets pass through or outside of probate as you originally intended.  Too many folks spend a lot of money creating fancy trusts and then never do the relatively simple work of actually transferring assets into the trust. 

7.  Think about including a no-contest clause tied to testamentary gifts of a degree sufficient to discourage legal disputes.  To help avoid post-death disputes it is worth possibly including a penalty clause that essentially poses a risk of losing their piece of the pie for any beneficiary who challenges the instrument  in question after your death. 

8.  Consider allowing some discretion with respect to distribution of assets so that beneficiaries can agree to a distribution that best meets their own needs and desires.  There is no one-size-fits-all strategy and of course none of us have a crystal ball, so sometimes providing for some flexibility is often a good practical solution. 

While not a fool-proof plan to avoid estate, trust & probate litigation, the foregoing reflects some good first steps to staying out of the courts with respect to the family fortune.  As we are in the heart of the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, I extend my best wishes to you with hopes for a fuss-free next few weeks.

Modern Recordkeeping Fraught With Potential For Abuse When Individuals Die

An interesting article on from a few days ago sheds light on how modern day estate planning probably needs to catch up with the practicalities of modern day life.  Specifically, the article's author discusses how, years ago, when an individual died the survivors typically conducted a search of the house, papers, safety deposit box, etc. in order to determine and collect information and records regarding the assets and liabilities of the estate.  However, these days much of that type of information is not stored in "hard copy" form but rather on a computer, typically protected by a password and known only to the person who just passed away.  One never knows when they will breathe their last breath, of course, and often the decedent never shares their password with another family member, friend, or trusted legal or financial advisor.

As a lawyer who does not engage in estate planning but instead represents clients in estate, trust and probate litigation matters, I believe that the increasing use of digital record keeping is fraught with potential abuse.  Specifically, while most fiduciaries are honest and trustworthy, I have worked on many lawsuits in which shady estate and trust administrators are alleged to have destroyed, concealed, or otherwise failed to produce documents to beneficiaries.  When such records are never even printed out but rather are kept only in digital form, the beneficiaries' discovery of such matters can seemingly be made even more difficult if not impossible.  After all, in some ways it can be easier to manipulate digital data than a hard copy.  So, while computers can no doubt increase the efficiency and accuracy of diligent decedents and honest estate and trust administrators, it basically comes down (as it always does) to a universal truth---people who are inclined to cheat can probably find a way to do it.   

No Breach Of Fiduciary Duty In Unique Trust Lawsuit

The Arkansas Court of Appeals recently ruled in an interesting case that a trustee's encumbrance of trust property did not, under the specific circumstances involved in the dispute, constitute a violation of the trustee's fiduciary duties.  Ordinarily such actions are looked down upon, but this case is an instance in which the unique facts involved apparently warranted a slight departure from the general rule.  

Specifically, on September 9, 2009, the Arkansas Court of Appeals issued its decision in the case of Hanna v. Hanna, #CA08-1256, which was an appeal from Washington County Circuit Court.  The ex-wife had sued her ex-husband for self-dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, and mismanagement of assets in their children's trusts.  The ex-wife had received a $16 million divorce settlement, and the ex-husbanddirected his chief financial officer to form a plan to gather the money (the couple had owned a successful candle company and several other entities) . 

Long story short, the ex-husband obtained loans to raise the funds and also used company assets as collateral for loans to company officers totaling $3 million.  The ex-wife brought the above-described claims against the ex-husband, and he defended arguing that he had not known it was wrong and that he had done it in the best interest of the children.  In doing so the ex-husband offered evidence that it was to the company's advantage that he settle, which he could only do by pledging company assets, and that the bank would not have funded the loan absent using company assets as collateral. 

Ultimately the trial court declined to award damages to the trusts or set aside the loan transactions, but did order the ex-husband to remove company assets as collateral for the officers' loans totaling $3 million.  The Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that this was not a situation in which a trustee was using trust assets solely to pay for his divorce settlement, nor was it an instance in which the trustee's actions failed to benefit the trusts.  The Court instead ruled that the parties to the lawsuit, the companies, and the trusts were all intertwined, and that the ex-husband's actions to carry out the divorce settlement in effect protected them all.  The Court did make clear, however, that its ruling was "confined to the particular circumstances of this case and should not be read to permit a trustee to encumber trust property in the absence of extraordinary circumstances."