In Fairfax, Virginia, as in many communities, planning for the future is a key concern for many families. This often includes the arrangement of estate administration services. However, a troubling trend has emerged – individuals and families are being swindled after prepaying for these vital services. I was recently contacted by a potential client whose mother paid for prepaid estate services but after her death those services will not be provided. See these Virginia State Bar publications for examples:
Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Order for David G. Hoffman
In this article, we aim to shed light on this issue and offer guidance to those affected.
Overview of Estate Administration Services
Estate administration is a critical service that involves managing and distributing a person's assets after they pass away. This can include paying debts and taxes, as well as ensuring that beneficiaries receive their inheritance. Many people choose to prepay for these services to ensure peace of mind for themselves and their families. However, this prepayment can sometimes lead to financial exploitation.
Common Scams and Red Flags in Fairfax
In Fairfax, common scams include firms that disappear after payment, services that are grossly substandard, or hidden fees that were not disclosed upfront. In one local case, the attorney owning two separate estate planning and estate administration firms did not have an IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Account) Account at all, despite the legal requirement that client money be held in such an account. That attorney has failed to provide the contracted for services and has since been disbarred, leaving his clients high, dry, and out of pocket.
Legal Recourse and Protection in Virginia
Victims of such scams in Fairfax have legal recourse. Virginia's consumer protection laws provide a framework for addressing fraud. Victims can file a complaint with the Virginia Attorney General's Consumer Protection Section, the Virginia State Bar or seek legal counsel for potential civil action. If the incident is in Fairfax County and a criminal fraud, it may also be reported to the Fairfax County Police Department through their Financincial Crimes Online Reporting (FiCOR) Tool: https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/police/howdoi/financialcrimes
While the potential for civil action may be cold comfort to those unable to receive the services they paid for. There is another process when the wrongdoer who took the money was an attorney. Victims may be able to get some of the money back through the Virginia State Bar’s Client Protection Fund.
The application form is available here: Client Protection Fund Application Form
There are a few things to know about applying:
You should pursue other recovery options before filing a claim
The reimbursement request will be decided at the discretion of the Client Protection Fund Board
You need to submit both the application form and supporting documents
The form must be signed under oath in front of a Notary Public
The claim must be filed within seven years of when you knew or should have know of the misconduct or within one year of the attorney being disbarred, whichever occurs later.
To avoid such scams, Fairfax residents should thoroughly vet any estate administration service. This includes checking for local registration, reading reviews, and asking for referrals. It's also advisable to consult with a local attorney before entering into any prepaid agreements.
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