Missing assets – who did it?

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Inheritance and fraud are popular themes in UK crime dramas, but how far do these cases reflect real life? Asks,Victoria Jones, Partner Lester Aldridge in the latest UK200Group blog post.

Victoria Jones
Funeral directors in the sleepy villages of Midsomer must have been kept busy, given the above average death rate in the fictional county, and no episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot would be complete without the victim’s family and friends congregating to hear the famous detective reveal the perpetrator of the crime and also their (usually inheritance related) motive.

Inheritance and fraud are popular themes in UK crime dramas, but how far do these cases reflect real life?

Estates values can be substantial and this makes them a tempting target for fraudsters.
Cases involving murder to obtain estate assets are still relatively rare, but they do still occur. The most notorious in recent years is that of Dr Harold Shipman, whose crimes came to light after he forged the will of one of his victim’s, Kathleen Grundy. The alleged ‘will’ named Shipman as the sole beneficiary of her £386,000 estate. Mrs Grundy’s daughter realised that something was amiss and a well-documented police investigation followed, resulting in Dr Shipman’s conviction for 15 murders.

Cases involving other probate fraud are much more common. This is because anyone can draft a will in England & Wales, so there is scope for an unscrupulous person to forge documents and claim that someone has changed their will or appoint themselves as both the executor and beneficiary of an estate.

For example, consultant psychiatrist, Dr Zholia Alemi, was recently jailed for five years for forging the will of 87-year-old Gillian Belham, in order to obtain a large part of her estimated £1.3 million estate.

Dr Alemi met Ms Belham when she was asked (in her professional role) to assess Ms Belham’s mental capacity. Dr Alemi was reported to have then tried to gain control of Ms Belham’s assets by fraudulently applying for a power of attorney and stealing her financial papers and bank cards. She also redrafted Ms Belham’s will (to benefit Dr Alemi and her grandchildren), duped two witnesses into signing the forged document and was later discovered to have lied about her medical qualifications.

NHS bereavement counselor, Yvette Adams, was also jailed for 5 years for obtaining approximately £750,000 from patients’ estates by forging wills and probate documentation. Ms Adams even amended one patient’s will after their death to name herself as the executor, then wound up the estate and retained the estate assets.

In 2017, the Law Commission launched a public consultation about reforming the law of wills in England & Wales, which date back to 1837. It stated that, “The law of wills needs to be modernised to take account of the changes in society, technology and medical understanding that have taken place since the Victorian era”.

In 2018, it was anticipated that the Law Commission would prepare a final report outlining its recommendations about wills and instruct Parliamentary Counsel to prepare a draft bill that would give effect to these. However, the publication of that report has been delayed.

When it is published, the Law Commission may suggest changes to the way in which wills are made. However, there is also another growing area of fraud where assets are siphoned off during someone’s lifetime, leaving little in their future estate. This usually involves the financial abuse of vulnerable adults, for example, those with mental health problems who may rely on others for day-to-day assistance.

This dependency can result in a vulnerable adult either being coerced into handing over substantial assets, or they may simply not have the mental capacity required to either understand or consent to payments or alleged ‘gifts’. In some cases, the victim may not realise that the fraud has occurred because they completely trust someone else to manage their financial affairs.

The Telegraph reported that, in 2015, 172 attorneys and deputies had to be removed from their role by the Office of the Public Guardian, due to financial mismanagement or theft. Although, it is not just attorneys who may be involved and other types of financial abuse cases regularly appear in news headlines.

For example, in 2017, Tanya Benjamin was jailed for 3 years for stealing £126,000 from an 85-year-old lady she had befriended and who paid Ms Benjamin £300 a week to carry out chores her home in Nottingham. In the same year, Monica Watson from County Durham was also jailed for 3 years for stealing more than £31,000 from an elderly woman in her care. The money was apparently spent on items including holidays and clothes.

Despite the above prosecutions, it is likely that many cases of probate fraud and financial abuse still go undetected. Until greater regulation occurs and the risk of fraud can be eliminated, it is important to be alert to any ‘red flags’ which might indicate missing assets, a serious problem with the administration of an estate or financial abuse. These might include estate accounts that do not add up, evasive executors, missing assets or unexplained discrepancies between what initially appeared to be in the deceased’s estate and the final value given.

In cases of financial abuse, it may be regular cash withdrawals which exceed an individual’s needs or standard of living, unexplained transfers, extravagant ‘gifts’ being made, or others having unsupervised access to bank accounts.

It should be stressed that many professionals, executors, carers and attorneys do an excellent job and that probate or financial fraud is not perpetrated by any singular group. However, if you are concerned that probate fraud or financial abuse has occurred, it is important to investigate this as soon as possible.

The Disputed Wills, Trusts & Probate Team at Lester Aldridge provide advice about probate fraud and also fraud involving vulnerable adults.

Victoria Jones, Partner
01202 786152

Tags: UK200

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