Five Telltale Signs of “Estate Manipulation”
By Alan Fanger
When clients who have been victimized by changes in a parent’s estate plan first contact me, I already know what I am about to hear: a tale of bitterness between siblings and the manipulation by one or more siblings of Mom or Dad’s assets. But sometimes it can be difficult to know whether Mom or Dad made a reasoned, deliberate decision to change his or estate plan, or whether that change was the product of manipulation. Here are five telltale signs that the process may have been characterized by the latter and not the former:
1. THE PERSON HAS A FINANCIAL MOTIVE TO MANIPULATE THE ASSETS. This is not always the case, though it more frequently is than isn’t. In most instances, a sibling or caregiver has either suffered some significant financial loss, is labor under consistent financial stress that can only be remedied by a substantial inheritance, or is resentful of a sibling’s self-made financial well-being.
2. THE PERSON BLOCKS ACCESS TO THE ELDER WHO HAS CHANGED HIS OR ESTATE PLAN. Stories abound about “manipulators” who put caller ID “blocks” on an elder’s phone, listen in on phone calls, monitor and delete e-mail and rip up letters sent to the elder. The restrictions on access and communications serve two purposes: (a) they prevent the elder from being influenced to “undo” the prior transaction; and (b) give the “manipulator” the [often false] sense that the “victim” will be unable to prove that they had any relationship with the elder, thus allowing a judge to believe that the changed estate plan was justified.
3. THE “MANIPULATOR” ASSUMES CONTROL OF THE ELDER’S ASSETS THROUGH LEGITIMATE MEANS. When an elder’s assets are manipulated, the manipulation is usually accompanied by the execution of a power of attorney in favor of the manipulator; the POA is worded generally so as to allow the manipulator to exert control over all of the elder’s assets. At the same time the manipulator, perhaps acting on the advice of an attorney, persuades the elder to allow them on their bank account as a joint account holder. This allows the manipulator, upon the death of the elder, to liquidate the account and hide the funds from the estate.
4. THE “MANIPULATOR” EXCLUSIVELY MANAGES THE ELDERS’ HEALTH CARE. Though this would appear to be a selfless act, it allows a “manipulator” to attempt to justify a change in an elder’s estate plan on the grounds that it was in recognition of the care that the manipulator agreed to provide.
5. THE MANIPULATOR ISN’T FORTHCOMING WITH THE “EXCLUDED HEIRS” FOLLOWING THE ELDER’S DEATH. In nearly every instance in which an estate plan is altered through manipulation, once the elder has died, the manipulator fails to respond to inquiries about the decedent’s will or assets, and in some instances doesn’t even inform siblings of the death, funeral or burial until days or weeks thereafter.