Thursday, August 27, 2009

Estate looting 101: what is an Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA)?

Bell County Legal News ExaminerLou Ann Anderson

An industry exists in which lawyers, accountants and other unethical participants - sometimes with complicity from probate and other courts - can separate any of us from our property when certain (not that unusual) circumstances occur. These situations can also be orchestrated at the behest of disgruntled family members or wannabe heirs. Whether through the misuse or abuse of wills, trusts, guardianships or other probate-related scenarios, Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) actions can and do occur as a means of calculatedly diverting assets away from intended heirs/beneficiaries.

The drive to acquire wealth dates back to beginning of man. Having the most skins or the largest cave equated to power and status. The same still applies today, but morality associated with the accumulation of wealth has seriously degraded. By adopting an “end justifies the means” attitude, too many people these days are minimally hesitant to engage in less-than-ethical activities as a way to bolster their financial position. Concepts like “earning one’s keep” and “paying your own way” are rapidly becoming obsolete.

With an entitlement mentality as a guiding force, if a way - especially with cover from the law – can be found to transfer financial holdings from someone to yourself, that’s a victory akin to a winning lotto ticket or a Las Vegas jackpot! An added incentive exists if the process, hopefully limited to cursory review, can appear clean and innocuous.

As people get older or incapacitated, the potential of being targeted for IRA increases. Sadly, it can be a known, trusted family member or friend or it can be a stranger who works their way into a person’s life gaining their confidence along the way. In either case, the consequences can be life-altering for a person and their loved ones.

To understand how our society has come to the point where people can (and do) position themselves so as to find ways in which they can acquire other people’s money, thought should be given to the evolution of how resources change hands.

The Direct Approach

Once upon a time, the involuntary separation of property from a rightful owner required some type of physical act. Be it knocking the person over the head and taking their money, utilizing a weapon in a threatening way to provoke the relinquishing of said assets or simply breaking into another’s domicile in order to remove the property from its rightful custody, some not-to-be-missed overt act generally took place as a crime was committed and one lost access to their resources.

Behind the Scenes: Clean Hands Doing Dirty Deeds

Since the 1939 introduction of the term “white-collar crime” by sociologist Edwin Sutherland, the definition of such crime has been vigorously debated. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines white-collar crime as “. . . those illegal acts which are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust and which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence. Individuals and organizations commit these acts to obtain money, property, or services; to avoid the payment or loss of money or services; or to secure personal or business advantage.” (USDOJ, 1989, p. 3)

Regardless of how one defines white-collar crime, we are all affected by such activities. These crimes seem on the upswing as technological advances and legitimized corruption have joined forces with social isolation and advanced moral degradation. Media forums, regardless of their ideological persuasions, have no shortage of stories reflecting a wide array of white-collar criminal activities. We’ve all heard the stories of non-violent, “clean” sounding tales from high-visibility corporate scandals like Enron to individuals like Judith Leekin, the Florida woman charged with fraudulently adopting 11 children and forcing them to exist in horrid conditions while she lived off reportedly more than $1 million of taxpayer funds meant to finance the children’s care.

As reporting opportunities constantly increase, the stigma associated with such stories seems in a decline. As long as people aren’t overtly violent, are more actions being viewed as “victimless”? Is this leading to a general desensitization to dishonest behavior? Might deceit and deception be someday viewed as a new “norm”? What could this mean for our society? Bernie Madoff aroused public anger, but many lower level Madoff-type shysters operate with near impunity. Top government officials broke laws in not paying federal income tax, but that matters little as well.

Maybe Not Illegal, But Does That Mean It’s “Right”?

In recent years, Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) activity has taken on a new look as lawyers and other parties not constrained by the boundaries of honesty and truthfulness use the legal system to influence situations in their favor. Laws may not be technically broken, but ethics violations and breaches of trust often leave people with the same feeling and the same net financial result as experiencing that physical hit over the head prior to assets being taken.

Stealing $250,000 from a bank illicits a far different law enforcement response than stealing the same amount from an estate. Estate disputes are occasionally, but not often treated as criminal matters. They usually are relegated to the civil court system. Many people pulled into IRA battles are simply ill-prepared for the fight. Not everyone has first-hand knowledge of the legal or court systems, especially those whose lives center around being productive, law-abiding citizens. If your life experience hasn’t included things like divorce, child custody disputes, bankruptcy, DWI/DUI charges or exposure to other criminal activity, chances are your first-hand contact with a courtroom may be limited to an occasional stint of jury duty. With that, you may not realize what a “racket” the court system can be and the amount of good money that can be thrown away on legal fees and court costs with the disposition of even a simple case.

Ironically, the money sometimes targeted for IRA exists because of a responsible lifestyle in which people avoided legal entanglements yet the avoidance of such experiences later creates a real disadvantage in dealing with IRA practitioners familiar with the jurisprudential system either as members of the legal profession or through personal life circumstances.

The Scoop on Not Becoming a “Dupe”

America’s senior citizens are particularly at risk of being duped out of resources that a lifetime was spent accumulating or resources that represent the hard work and values of a multi-generational family effort. People with any means need to understand that our world contains predators seeking to separate you from your wealth – by Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA), if necessary. Remember also that money, like many other things, is relative. What may seem modest or respectable to you could be a veritable fortune to someone feeling desperate or someone whose poor life choices has left them unacquainted with having financial resources.

Our aging population is a magnet for all types of scams and dishonest enterprises. In his book, People Get Screwed All the Time, attorney Robert Massi provides insight as to the creativity and boldness of IRA practitioners operating amongst us. Many of the situations addressed by Mr. Massi illustrate how legal maneuvering and basic business practices can be used to separate unsuspecting people from their money or prized assets.

The act of reaching into one’s own pockets to help a fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else’s pocket is despicable and worthy of condemnation.

-Walter E. Williams, professor of economics and regular guest host on The Rush Limbaugh Show, Compassion Versus Reality, June 6, 2007

Individuals must beware the threats posed to their property and their heirs'/beneficiaries' rights of inheritance. IRA can happen anywhere, but areas with large retirement populations can be especially appealing to financial predators. Some communities may have to take a stand in support of their residents' property rights and in opposition to IRA property poachers. As public officials and prominent community members have been known to participate in these illicit activities, doing the right thing may take some courage.

With many people's ever-increasing sense of entitlement, a troubled economy and the transfer of wealth that is getting ready to occur in the next 20 or so years, Involuntary Redistribution of Assets cases will skyrocket. Next time you are at grocery store, health club, playing bridge or even in church, take a look to your left, take a look to your right. The field of people willing to participate in IRA activities is varied and growing. Never doubt that some of America’s best cons are taking place in our nicest neighborhoods.

Coming soon:

Specifics on how guardianships, wills and trusts are used in the perpetration of IRA.

For more info:

Estate looting 101: a broadcast overview (August, 9, 2009)

The 2009 MetLife Study of the American Dream

By Hook or Crook, the American Dream Remains a Desirable Goal (June 7, 2008)

Your Town, USA – a Great Place to Live, Launch and Loot? (April 4, 2008)

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