Is “House Fraud” A Major Problem In The Florida Probate System?
Having an estate plan is always a good idea, but it is especially important if you own your home or other real property. While intestate succession law determines who inherits your property in the absence of a will, you need to consider the possibility that someone might try to take advantage of the situation and cheat your heirs out of their rightful inheritance.
You might think it would be difficult to steal a house, but a recent Orlando Sentinel report explained that is just what is happening in probate courts throughout Florida. The Sentinel highlighted the problem of “home fraud,” a term used by law enforcement to describe scams targeting elderly and vulnerable adults into signing away the titles to properties owned by deceased relatives.
Scammers Use “False Heirs” to Claim Properties
The Sentinel said the typical home fraud scam worked like this: The scammers “access public records online to identify homes that have unpaid property taxes, in hopes there’s not the rightful owner still living there, or search obituaries for people who have died.” The scammers then target the heirs of these deceased owners, who are themselves often elderly, financially vulnerable, and/or live outside of Florida.
In some cases, the Sentinel noted, the scammers will actually recruit a “false heir” to initiate probate proceedings. For example, in one case two women allegedly “convinced a man who had just been released from prison–and who had the same last name as a homeowner–that he was an heir, which he wasn’t, and he took a small cut of the sale.” These women have already been convicted of federal crimes and now face additional charges in Florida state court.
Take Action to Protect Your Inheritance Rights
Obviously, cases like this demonstrate the importance of having a will. When homeowners die without a will, family members may not realize they need to take the initiative and open a probate estate. This can open the door for scammers to step in and take control of the property.
Another way to protect your property is to place it in a revocable trust. Property in a trust does not go through the Florida probate process. This means that a judge cannot simply give your house away after you die. The trustee you name assumes legal title to the property and is legally required to carry out the instructions in the trust instrument.
Unfortunately, many people put off making a will or trust until it is too late. And this can lead to problems like those described in the Sentinel article. The rightful heirs of the estate are then left to try and undo the damage.
If you are involved in a dispute over the probate of a loved one’s estate, your first step should always be to seek out legal advice from an attorney who specializes in this area. The Pompano Beach estate and trust litigation attorneys at the offices of Mark R. Manceri, P.A., can offer you guidance and representation. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.