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The holidays are a time of giving and connecting with family and friends.

In this holiday season, our team wanted to offer the gift of our experience, and suggest a practical tool that can be used during “family gatherings” that may help prevent or fight fraud in your family’s future.


It’s not a fun “holiday topic” but it’s important to be aware of your situation. It is the first line of defense against financial predators.

In the USA, nearly 3 million people die every year, and during the holidays, those mortality statistics spike.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that “42,325 more people died of natural causes — which make up about 93 percent of all deaths — during the two-week Christmas/New Year holiday period than would normally be expected, given the typical winter increase in deaths.”

While there are many theories about the phenomenon, there is no escaping the fact that more people die during this festive time than in other months.

Nearly 3 million people die every year in the United States (slightly less than 1% of the population). Roughly a quarter of a million every month. If there is fraud in just 1% of the estates opened every year, it means that there will be more than 500 new cases of estate fraud every week!  

The first line of defense is to be aware of your situation: Is someone in your family a likely target?


Financial predators target the ignorant, weak, dependent, gullible and compliant. They exploit kindness and leverage trust.

In most fraud cases, victims know (or think they know) the people who are targeting them. Fraud in trusts, estates, probates and guardianships nearly always involve either family members or professionals who have intimate knowledge of the family’s assets. These include caregivers, attorneys, brokers, accountants, bankers, and realtors.

Fraud is a crime of opportunity. The loss of a loved one is a disruptive event, and this emotional disruption provides the perfect opportunity for thieves and fraudsters to distract you—and target the assets of your family. The chaos and stress caused by the passing of a family member provides the perfect opportunity to steal.


The heart of the probate and estate process is accounting. An estate accounting, in simple terms, is a list of the assets and a list of the liabilities (or debts owed to others).

Fraudsters will use the chaos and disruption of the event to create false accountings to deceive the people involved. The challenge in estate fraud is this: If you don’t know what assets existed in the past, it would be impossible for you to know what is missing in the estate accounting.

So, one of the keys to fighting estate fraud is to know what assets the family had in the past.

This leads us to the simple idea that can be used by anyone: A way to use family gatherings at the holidays to help defend your family’s assets.


A quick and cheap tool that can be used to fight fraud is the same one used by insurance companies when issuing a homeowner’s policy: The camera in your cell phone.

Use it to inventory and catalog your assets (and/or those of your family). It can be used to document the tools in your garage, the china in your cupboard, and art around the house. Ask permission from your parents or other loved ones to take pictures of their place for safe keeping, if it’s appropriate.

Remember to take pictures of the pictures: Photograph old family albums (of course first asking permission) including wedding, anniversary, school and reunion albums, as they all contribute to the timeline of a life.

Nearly every life event has a parallel financial component and those old photos can help built a financial timeline that corresponds to your family history.

Create a file of these photos and share them with other family members. They provide great memories, and but they also document the assets that are part of that life: Cars, art, houses, new jobs (along with the pensions, insurance policies and bonuses that come with them).

Family photos a tool in fighting estate theft and fraud

In the accounting of an estate, a picture is more than a fond memory, it is also “documentary evidence.” It is a front line defense against theft and estate fraud.

When an estate is opened, that old picture of grandpa’s band allows you to be sure that the saxophone he is holding in the photo is included in the estate accounting and hasn’t suddenly “gone missing” to the local pawn shop.

As you gather these photographic memories, consider building a family timeline on paper. It need not be  complex: A couple pages of handwritten notes will give context to a lifetime of events: When did they arrive in the USA? When did they marry? What about their first house; birth of a child, change in job, divorce, promotion, new house, illness, travel?

Working with other family members can add layers of knowledge to your timeline. Did they travel? Did they join a golf or hunting club? Did they start a business? Did they have a time-share? Did they have season tickets to sporting events? Did they collect coins or cars or art? All of these events can impact the value of an estate.

Remember that in the digital age, these same tools can be used in the social media realm: Many people have years of pictures in the public domaine that can be used to give context and order to an estate accounting.

Building a timeline of your family’s history is way to trace your family’s journey, and a first step in defending your family’s assets from financial predators. Three minutes spent outlining your family’s history may save your family hundreds or even thousands of dollars in losses. Not to mention the “he said/she said” claims that can erupt into expensive court battles.

In the event your family is already in an estate accounting, these tools can still be used to improve accuracy in the process. Get your family’s photo albums, take pictures of the old pictures and start building an inventory and a timeline. It’s never to late to start, and it doesn’t cost a nickel!


Our goal is to help you defend what your family has worked a lifetime to save and this simple idea is just one of many things you can do to protect and defend your family’s assets.

Stay alert and stay aware: If you see something that’s odd or out of place, be sure to speak up and ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable with confronting the people involved with your estate, please contact us. It’s all we do and we do it for free.

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Our team of fraud fighters hopes that your family enjoys peace, joy and prosperity today, and the years ahead.

Follow us on Twitter: @stopfraud4













About Edmund Burke 116 Articles
Volunteers working to help people spot, stop and recover from fraud and corruption in probate, trusts, estates & guardianships.