Charities should be wary of fraud involving executors of wills, charity lawyers have warned.
Tara McInnes, an associate in the dispute resolution team at Gardner Leader solicitors, said that in the past 12 months there had been an increase in the number of cases in which executors of wills had used money left to clients, including charities, for personal gain.
McInnes told Third Sector that one reason charity legacies were vulnerable to fraud was that wills including substantial legacies were often made by people who had no close family members, so the executors were not related to the deceased.
In order to avoid fraud, McInnes said, it was important for charities to gather as much information as possible about the estate from which they had been awarded a legacy.
She said charities should also look out for anything within the estate accounts that did not look quite right – this, she said, might indicate that a fraud was taking place.
"It should be quite apparent," said McInnes. "You will see large withdrawals or invoices that don’t make sense."
The increase in fraud could be related to the recent drive to encourage more people to leave legacies to charities, she said.
McInnes said that any charity with concerns about fraud could make an application to the courts to have the executor of a will replaced in certain cases.
Jonathan Grogan, associate at the law firm Bond Dickinson, said disputes about inheritance, wills and trusts seemed to be increasing in number, and that it was not uncommon for charities to become the victims of legacy fraud, even when family members were appointed as executors of a will.
But he said he had not personally heard of an increase in cases specifically involving fraudulent executors.
"Charities are seen as easy targets that won’t be aware of the family background or assets," he said. "And family members appointed as executors might feel aggrieved if charities are getting a big chunk at their expense."
Grogan said the economic climate might have caused an increase in the number of cases of executors stealing from charity legacies. "I suppose in times of economic hardship it’s only going to be more tempting for lay executors to benefit themselves at charities’ expense," he said.