3 ways to avoid an estate planning scam
By now, we’re all familiar with Bernie Madoff and his infamous Ponzi scheme. Many people have also heard about the “grandparent scam.” In this swindle, the scammer calls posing as the victim’s grandchild, claiming to be traveling in a foreign country and in distress. The scammer convinces the victim to wire them money. The “grand child” hangs up, and the funds are gone forever.
One surprising area in which scams are becoming more common is estate planning. Each year, more people fall victim to unscrupulous and unqualified sellers of ineffective estate planning documents. Often, these scammers are door-to-door salesmen or telemarketers.
Would you recognize an estate planning scam if you saw one? Here’s how to make sure your or loved ones are never victims:
1. Work with a qualified estate planning attorney. Be careful of websites that offer DIY wills. Estate planning is a complex area of law, and the rules vary from state to state. Only a licensed, experienced estate planning attorney is qualified to prepare an estate plan for you. Before you work with any estate planning professional, make sure he or she is licensed to practice law in your state. This is as simple as checking your state’s Bar (http://www.americanbar.org/groups/bar_services/resources/state_local_bar_associations.html) to ensure the person you want to work with is listed as an active member in good standing.
2. Take your time. Legitimate estate planning attorneys understand when you need additional information about their services. This is especially true if you attend an estate planning seminar. Never feel pressured to buy products or services “on the spot” – and never, ever purchase a pre-printed Living Trust “kit.”
3. Ask lots of questions. A qualified estate planning attorney has years of legal training and experience. He or she should be able to explain all of your planning options, as well as the potential outcomes for each option. What’s more, your attorney should be able to explain these things in language you can understand. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you don’t understand what you’re signing, don’t sign it.
Finally, it pays to remember the old adage if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Someone who is unlicensed or unqualified might offer you a bargain-basement price, but what value are you really receiving? Too often, it is an estate plan that turns out to be ineffective or even counter to your wishes. What’s worse, your family might not even realize there is a problem until after your death, when it is too late to correct the mistake. By then, your life savings could have passed to unintended recipients, your estate could be on the hook for unnecessary taxes and fees, and your loved ones could find themselves in the midst of unnecessary confusion and conflict.
A qualified estate planning attorney will work with you to put a plan in place that will carry out your wishes and meet your family’s needs, without any nasty last-minute surprises.
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