Protect Yourself From Estate Planning Scams

Estate Planning

If you don’t have an estate plan, or it’s been a while since you have updated your plan, the need to get it done probably sits at the back of your mind. Maybe you haven’t called an estate planning lawyer because you’re busy with other urgent matters. Perhaps you have mobility or transportation issues that make it difficult to get to a lawyer’s office. Like many people, you might be concerned about the cost of making a will or trust. Or maybe the idea of making an estate plan just seems too complicated, so you put it off another day…then another, and another.

Whatever the reason, you still want to do everything you can to protect your loved ones and provide for their future—you just wish it was easier. That tension between the need to plan and the obstacles involved is exactly why estate planning scams exist.

Who is Vulnerable to Estate Planning Scams?

Anyone can fall prey to an estate planning scam, since we all know we should have an estate plan. People are predisposed to jump at the chance to get a task they’ve been putting off done easily, conveniently, and cheaply.

But certain populations are more likely to be taken advantage of than others, like seniors. There are a few key reasons that con artists are likely to target older people. When infamous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he is said to have replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Similarly, scammers tend to go after seniors because they have often accumulated more wealth than younger people.

Older people are also likely to have children or grandchildren whose future they care about. That makes it easier for scammers to play on their guilt. “Don’t you want to protect your loved ones? You don’t want to leave a big mess behind for your family, do you?” Seniors may fall for an estate planning scam because they think that they are doing something good for their loved ones.

The elderly are also common targets of scams because they may have memory issues or cognitive loss that makes it more difficult for them to identify and reject unethical tactics. People with dementia are especially likely to be fearful and vulnerable to manipulation and financial exploitation.

All of that said, just because older people are more likely to be targeted doesn’t mean that younger people can let down their guard. Everyone should be wary of estate planning scams like the ones below.

Common Estate Planning Scams in 2024

Some of these scams have been around for years, and will be around for many more. That is unfortunately because they work. And because people who have been taken in by these tricks tend to be embarrassed and ashamed, they don’t talk about financial scams with others—who may then become victims in their turn. 

Direct Solicitations for Estate Planning Services

If you have a nagging worry that you should get your estate plan done, and then someone calls you and offers to set you up with a will or trust, it may seem like the answer to a prayer—but it’s probably the opposite.  While legitimate attorneys may advertise, including hosting dinner seminars on estate planning, they almost never call individuals to try to get their business. 

If someone calls your home or cell phone, or shows up at your door offering estate planning services, that’s a big red flag. Never give an unsolicited caller or visitor any personal or financial information.

Estate Planning or Living Trust “Mills”

You are probably aware of the growing popularity of living trusts. You can bet that scammers have heard of them, too, and they have rushed in to capitalize on people’s desire to have the benefits of a living trust.

While living trusts do boast many advantages, not everyone needs one. Those who do are unlikely to get what they’re looking for from a living trust mill. Trust documents are often boilerplate and copied and pasted for each new client, rather than customized to each planner’s needs. Even if the trust is effectively drafted, it’s of no use unless it’s funded, a potentially time-consuming process that mills don’t help with. In the worst case scenario, the trust isn’t even valid, which may not be clear until after the death of the person for whom it was created. 

Another danger with these planning “mills” is the involvement of a financial advisor who sells annuities that are wrong for the client’s needs and incur significant penalties if surrendered too soon. The estate planner may receive (and not disclose) a commission from these sales, enabling them to offer the estate plan at a seemingly low cost, or even no cost. 

Oversized Fees

In some cases, estate planning scammers do actually provide a service, such as providing a valid will, but it costs much more than it should. Scammers may also “upsell” their targets, such as by urging them to buy a more complex (and expensive) estate plan than they really need. For instance, many seniors just need a simple will, but a scammer persuades them to get a complicated trust they don’t need.

Excessive fees often go hand in hand with pressure to “buy now,” because the scammer knows that if you have time to think about it or do a price comparison, you’ll walk away. A common trick is to offer a large discount if you commit to working with them today, with the threat that if you wait, you’ll pay much more.

Staying Safe From Estate Planning Fraud

Remember that any legitimate estate planner will need access to sensitive information like your Social Security number, your banking information, and account numbers for your investment accounts. That gives unscrupulous people cover to ask for that information, too, exposing you to identity theft as well as the risk of overpaying for services, or getting an “estate plan” that simply doesn’t work at all.

To protect yourself, here are some simple steps you can take: 

  • Ask the person offering services if they are an attorney licensed to practice in your state. The answer should be yes; estate planning is a legal service and may involve complex tax issues. You want the person providing this critical service to be qualified.
  • Be extremely cautious if someone directly solicits you to purchase an estate plan. Legitimate attorneys advertise, but they don’t cold-call.
  • Be wary of providers who try to “upsell” additional services or products, especially investments.
  • If you don’t understand terms a provider is using, ask for clarification until you do understand. Scammers are banking on you not wanting to look unsophisticated or dumb, but you have the right to know what you’re purchasing.
  • Avoid providers who offer you a discount for signing on for their services today, or imply that you will pay more if you don’t commit immediately. You have the right to comparison shop and to get an estate plan that is designed for you.

To learn more about estate planning scams, financial abuse of elders, and how to protect yourself, contact Estate Planning & Elder Law Services to schedule a consultation.

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