How To Prove Inheritance Theft

sarah ryan
Sarah RyanAccount Manager @ Lawhive & Non-Practising Solicitor
Updated on 5th July 2024

Inheritance theft can be a distressing issue, particularly when it involves family members or trusted individuals.

It happens when someone unlawfully takes or withholds assets from an estate and can involve various forms of misconduct, like forging documents, influencing the deceased's will, or simply taking assets without authority or permission.

If you suspect someone has taken or is hiding assets that should rightfully belong to the beneficiaries of an estate, it's essential to take action to protect your inheritance rights.

In this article, we'll guide you through how to prove inheritance theft in the UK. We'll cover how to gather evidence, the legal options available for pursuing an inheritance claim, and practical tips for protecting your inheritance.

What is inheritance theft?

Inheritance theft happens when someone takes or hides money, property, or other valuable items that were meant to be given to others after a person dies.

This can happen if a person, such as a family member, friend, or even an executor (the person responsible for managing the deceased’s will), steals or misuses these assets.

As a result, instead of the inheritance going to the rightful heirs as stated in the will or by law, the thief keeps it for themselves.

Is it a crime to steal inheritance?

Stealing inheritance is considered a crime and can be prosecuted under various criminal laws including:

  • Theft Act 1968: If someone unlawfully takes money or assets from an estate.

  • Fraud Act 2006: If someone manipulates or forges documents or misleads beneficiaries to gain control of an inheritance.

  • Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981: If someone forges a will or other legal documents to claim an inheritance.

Penalties for inheritance theft can include prison sentences, fines, and a criminal record depending on the value of the stolen assets and the nature of the fraud.

Courts may also order the offender to return stolen assets or provide monetary compensation to the rightful beneficiaries.

Aside from criminal prosecution, victims of inheritance theft can also pursue civil claims to recover stolen inheritance. For example, beneficiaries can file a civil lawsuit against the person who stole the inheritance or bring claims against executors or administrators for breach of fiduciary duty.

Signs of inheritance theft

In the emotional turmoil following the death of a loved one, it can be hard to detect inheritance theft.

Common signs to watch out for include:

  • Sudden, unexplained withdrawals or transfers from the deceased's bank accounts or investment portfolios;

  • Valuable items going missing without explanation;

  • Sudden changes to the will, particularly those made when the deceased was in ill health that disproportionately benefit someone or disinherit other rightful beneficiaries;

  • Secrecy and lack of transparency from the executor or administrator;

  • The estate's debts and liabilities are not being paid or settled promptly;

  • Unfamiliar signatures or handwriting on any documents related to the estate like wills, codicils, or financial documents;

  • Beneficiaries are excluded from discussions and decisions about the estate.

Not all of these signs definitively mean that inheritance theft has happened or will happen. However, they can indicate that something is wrong.

If you suspect inheritance theft, it's important to act quickly and seek legal advice to investigate and address the issue.

How do I prove inheritance theft?

To prove inheritance theft, you need to build a strong case.

Here are some steps you can take to prove it.

Document everything

As soon as you suspect inheritance theft you should start to keep detailed records of all transactions, communications, and actions related to the estate. This includes emails, letters, phone call logs, messages, and notes from meetings.

If you've noted any unusual or suspicious transactions, keep hold of bank statements showing the movement of funds or changes in assets, particularly unauthorised withdrawals or transfers.

Identify missing or misappropriated assets

To prove inheritance theft, you will also need evidence of what has been taken.

To do this, make a list of all assets that should be part of the estate and check this against what has been accounted for. Note any assets that are missing or have been sold without proper documentation.

Get witness statements

If anyone has witnessed suspicious activities or knows about the estate and its assets, get written statements from them.

If possible, get copies of the will, codicils, trust deeds, and other legal documents related to the estate.

If a probate application has been made, review this and any related documents submitted to the Probate Registry.

In examining these documents, you may notice they seem to have been altered or forged. Having copies can provide crucial evidence if you bring a claim against someone.

Consult a solicitor

A wills, trust and probate solicitor can advise on the best course of action once you have collected all the relevant evidence of inheritance theft.

If you have sufficient evidence, your solicitor can help you file a legal claim against the person suspected of inheritance theft.

Can an executor be held liable for inheritance theft?

Executors have a fiduciary duty to manage the estate according to the law and the deceased's will. They must act honestly, with integrity, and in the best interests if beneficiaries.

If they breach this duty by stealing or mismanaging estate assets, they can face serious consequences.

For example, if an executor transfers estate funds into the personal account without justification, they can be sued for breach of fiduciary duty.

Executors who steal or commit fraud with estate assets can also face criminal charges, as well as civil action, for forging documents, embezzling funds, or hiding assets from beneficiaries.

What evidence is needed to support claims of inheritance theft?

Key types of evidence that can support claims of inheritance theft include:

  • Bank statements;

  • Investment and account statements;

  • Copies of the will and any codicils;

  • Probate application documents;

  • Communications between the executor or administrator and beneficiaries;

  • Meeting notes and records regarding the management and distribution of the estate;

  • Testimonies from family members and friends;

  • Testimonies from professionals such as solicitors, financial advisors, or accountants.

Forensic experts can also examine documents for signs of forgery or tampering, providing important evidence to support claims of inheritance theft.

How do I challenge a fraudulent will?

Common grounds for contesting a will include:

If you plan to challenge a will, you should first lodge a caveat at the Probate Registry. This stops the Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration from being issued for at least six months and can be renewed thereafter.

Doing this gives you more time to build your case and for the claim to be investigated.

If you want to challenge a will, you may need to take the matter to court. Your solicitor will help you file a claim and represent you during legal proceedings.

What are my rights as a beneficiary if I suspect inheritance theft?

As a beneficiary, you have the right to know about the contents of the will and the estate’s administration. You can request detailed information and accounts from the executor regarding the handling of the estate’s assets at any point.

Not only this but if you believe the executor is mishandling the estate, you can challenge their actions. This can involve asking them to provide a full accounting of the estate or, in severe cases, seeking their removal through the courts.

You also have the right to:

  • File a caveat with the Probate Registry

  • Take legal action

  • Seek compensation

  • Report them to authorities.

How long do I have to make a claim for inheritance theft?

The time frame to make a claim for inheritance theft can vary depending on the nature of the claim.

Type of Claim

Time Limit

Claims Against Executors or Administrators

12 years from the date of the theft to make a claim against an executor or administrator who has misappropriated estate assets.

Claims for Fraud or Deception

Six years from the date you discovered the fraud or could have reasonably discovered it.

Inheritance Act Claims

Six months from the date of the Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration.

Undue Influence or Lack of Capacity Claims

No specific statutory time limit.

In any case of inheritance theft, time is of the essence. Acting quickly can help preserve evidence and make sure your claim is filed within the statutory time limits.

What are the possible outcomes if inheritance theft is proven?

If inheritance theft is proven, the outcomes could be:

  • Return of stolen assets

  • Financial compensation to cover any losses incurred

  • Removal of the executor

  • Criminal charges

  • Breach of trust action.

How can a solicitor help with inheritance theft claims?

A solicitor can help with inheritance theft claims by giving you expert legal advice and providing representation throughout a process that can be very time-consuming and emotionally difficult.

They will help you gather evidence and guide you through the legal process. Additionally, a solicitor can represent you in court, arguing on your behalf to recover stolen assets, secure financial compensation, and seek the removal of any fraudulent executor.

How can Lawhive help with Inheritance Theft claims?

In this article, we've explored the steps you can take to prove inheritance theft and the types of evidence you need. We've also discussed the potential civil and criminal consequences for those involved in inheritance theft.

Recognising the signs of inheritance theft and knowing how to respond can help you safeguard your rightful inheritance and honour the wishes of the deceased.

Here at Lawhive, we provide comprehensive support for anyone facing inheritance theft issues.

Our services include:

  • Expert legal advice tailored to your specific situation;

  • Gathering and reviewing critical evidence;

  • Drafting and filing essential legal documents, including formal requests

  • Representing you in court and advocating on your behalf

For expert advice and assistance with inheritance theft claims, contact us today for a free case evaluation and no-obligation quote for the services of a specialist lawyer who can guide you through the legal process from start to finish.

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