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Inheritance Thieves: Friends and Relatives!

        Tom Helms ISA-AM

9/1/2009



Estates are plundered; heirs point fingers, and attorneys are called.  This scenario is played over and over much to the delight from those who tend to profit from the victims.  The would-be heirs lose more than money; they lose that final connection to the memory of the deceased along with the added grief.  The major problem: heirs many times cannot prove that the treasured possessions had been taken, existed, and/or worse yet, stolen.  The advice is always the same: "the owner can be responsible for the outcome by planning ahead."


Normally, it is not money that is taken because very few career criminals steal inheritances.  The thief is most likely to be a trusted companion, friend, or family member who thinks that they deserve the valuables.  The motives are varied:  revenge, entitlement, or abject greed.


It is common for appraisers to be called to assist attorneys, fiduciaries, trust officers, and personal representatives to help avoid "the pointed finger" of distrust.  As a self-defense tool, every estate no matter how big or small should have an inventory appraisal of all items of worth especially antiques and vintage pieces such as mid-century modern, sentimental family heirlooms, quality jewelry, and special collections.  Once the appraisal is completed, identify who gets what item and where it is located.  Every heir should get a copy of your appraisal including your trust officer or estate representative.  


The best way to avoid a problem:  give the item(s) to your heirs before you die.  This guarantees that everything goes where you want them to go, and it lets you see family members enjoy the possession.  Warning:  make sure you meet with a financial planner or tax preparer to minimize any tax problems created by a large gift.


About a year ago, we did an inventory appraisal for a widow and her attorney. The appraisal designated items she wanted family members to have and also stated where those items were located. The appraisal report was sent to each heir along with a copy of her will.  It wound up being a smart move for everyone involved.  A caregiver who had built a close relationship with the mother had convinced her to leave her a "small gift" by preparing a fake amendment to the will.  If that had been the only will and the woman had not been so open with her family, trouble would have resulted.


Another example involved an unmarried aunt who died and left the bulk of her estate to her favorite nephew.  Her two sisters had harbored years of resentment against their older sibling because the parents had left the majority of the family antiques to her.  Again working for the same attorney, we did an inventory appraisal documenting the items in her small two bedroom patio home.  A record of the contents was established along with the fair market values.  Sadly during the funeral, the sisters' children who were not mentioned in the will and resented that their cousin and/or brother was inheriting the majority of the estate, plundered the home and drove off with most of the contents.  The only proof available was the appraisal report.  The outcome: there was not enough money for legal action, therefore, the attorney using the appraisal report deducted the value of the missing items from the sisters' share of the trust fund and gave it to the nephew.  A permanent rift now exists amongst the family.


We are constantly confronted with distraught heirs over property issues due to the fact that the owner had not prepared ahead.  Such a legacy should not be left to the inheritance thieves; you are the one still in control to stop the "green-eyed monster". 


Arizona Personal Property Appreaisers
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Ron Freeman - 602-576-0574
Tom Helms - 602-319-4207
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