How to Avoid an Estate Planning Scam
Scammers are notorious for targeting older adults. Lately, our office has seen an uptick in estate planning-oriented scams. Whether you’re targeted via phone, e-mail, or letter, here’s how to avoid an estate planning scam.
#1 Look for personal identifiers in communications.
Often when a scammer pretends to impersonate an attorney, they use vague language that lacks any personal identifiers like your name. This should be a red flag! A real attorney will not address you as “Dear friend…” or “To whom it may concern”. They will usually use your name, your mailing address, and often a file number. And they will probably contact you for the first time via letter rather than e-mail or phone.
#2 Confirm the employment of the person contacting you.
What if the so-called “attorney” who has contacted you uses the mailing address of your estate planning attorney, but you don’t recognize their name? Be sure to double-check the law firm’s website and/or the California State Bar website. If that person is not listed on the firm and state bar website as working there, you have probably been the victim of a scam.
#3 Beware claims of a “long-lost relative” in another country.
If someone contacts you claiming to have discovered a long-lost relative in another country and is requesting probate fees so you can get your inheritance, this is probably an estate planning scheme. Usually, the scammer requests that you send them a few thousand dollars in “probate fees,” promising a large inheritance when the estate closes.
Never send any money to anyone until you have thoroughly investigated the law firm or attorney contacting you and confirmed that it is legitimate. And remember – the odds that you will inherit a large sum of money from a long-lost relative are quite low.
#4 Skip “title insurance”.
Some clients have contacted us asking if they should purchase something called “title insurance”. Companies like Title Lock scare older folks by telling them that a scammer could file a new deed with the county recorder, forge their name, and transfer the home title to themselves. For a monthly fee, such companies claim to protect the home from title fraud.
Title insurance may not be a traditional scam, but it is a waste of money. First, this type of estate planning fraud is very rare. If it did happen, you could charge the scammer with fraud. Second, if the title insurance company were to discover that title fraud had occurred, they would only alert you of the problem. They would not take any legal action to help you resolve the fraud.
Title insurance is actually a simple deed monitoring service that periodically checks the title to your house. You could do this for yourself for free on the county assessor’s website.
#5 Avoid living trust mills.
A trust mill is a scam that the California Attorney General has warned about for many years. The trust mill scam involves non-attorneys selling pricy, cookie-cutter legal documents to older adults. Often the trust mill offers a free seminar and later sends a sales agent to the older person’s home to try to sell them expensive, generic trusts or additional products like annuities.
Don’t let yourself be pressured by a trust mill company into making a hasty purchase. Always confirm that the person preparing your estate planning documents is an experienced estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice law in your state. A reputable attorney will personalize your estate plan in a way that’s appropriate for your individual circumstances.
We hope this information helps you and your loved ones avoid estate planning scams. If you have any questions about how to avoid an estate planning scam, feel free to contact our law firm.
Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt
The Law Offices of Daniel A. Hunt is a California law firm specializing in Estate Planning; Trust Administration & Litigation; Probate; and Conservatorships. We've helped over 10,000 clients find peace of mind. We serve clients throughout the greater Sacramento region and the state of California.