I've seen and read about lots of relatives of deceased wealthy individuals disputing the dead person's will and I've always been curious about this:

Suppose I'm a lawyer (who I'm not) and I'm holding the will of a dead multi-billionaire. In his will, the dead guy insists that his wealth must go to many people other than his family.

Now, let's suppose that I also happen to be an unscrupulous lawyer. At this point, I have only two options, the first one being that I can release the will and gain nothing but the fees for my services.

On the other hand, because they are all excluded from the will, the guy's family might be disgusted by his betrayal. My second option will thus entail teaming up with the family to make the will disappear, provided that they can guarantee me a fraction of the fortune. The logic being that when there's no will, property gets divided up among the dead person's immediate relatives.

At this point, I can see only three problems.

The first problem being that his family might actually be in agreement with his will and there's the possibility that they mutually agreed to be excluded from it.

The second problem being that his family are not in agreement with being excluded from his will but the people included in the will are aware of the existence of that will, and are also aware that they are mentioned as beneficiaries of the estate.

The third problem being the matter of witnesses.

Solving the first problem will be dead simple. I'll simply drop by their house, show them the will, and observe their reaction. If his family is shocked that their names are nowhere in or near the document, I'm in luck.

Admittedly, the second problem will require much more work. All I'll have to do is find a way to completely ascertain that there is no copy of the will that I'm holding.

Last, the witnesses. If the dead guy was a shrewd man, he'd have brought along people wealthier than him to witness his signing of his will, as they won't need any of his money. But let's just assume that all the witnesses are the kind of people who can be bought for a few million dollars.

The way forward then becomes clear -- gang up with the family and make a lot more money than I'd otherwise make if I just handed over the will to the courts.

Okay, since I don't know anything about law, I realize I might have made lots of naive assumptions but you get the whole drift.

So what's to stop a rogue lawyer from pulling off something like this?

EDIT: In retrospect, my question sounds highly unethical. But its purely an intellectual itch that keeps coming back to taunt me every time I come across property disputes. For my age, I can be considered a fairly wealthy guy whose wealth will only increase with time. While I don't have a wife and kids yet, I can't help wondering if scenarios like those actually happen in real life.

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    The fourth problem: the family agree to your unethical behaviour and then don't give you your cut. Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 11:01
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    That was already taken care of -- "My second option will thus entail teaming up with the family to make the will disappear, provided that they can guarantee me a fraction of the fortune."It's not like the guarantee would be a mere promise.
    – Zero
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 12:47
  • @nomenagentis Ah, yes. Something like that. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. So how will this kind of fraud be investigated? More importantly, who's going to initiate investigations if nobody else but the lawyer and the family know about the crime and either side has everything to lose if they confessed about it?
    – Zero
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 17:39
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    I don't know where you learnt about ethics; this doesn't sound unethical, it is unethical, also immoral and illegal
    – Dale M
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 11:56
  • @DaleM, like I said, this is purely a hypothetical question that crossed my mind. From the comments, I've collected that this kind of fraud can neither be prevented, nor detected, nor punished, only relying on the lawyer being ethical. And that's too naive. So I think you guys have indirectly given me an answer -- the invincibility of the will depends solely on the ingenuity of our hypothetical billionaire. Perhaps he should pick his witnesses from the pool of those to be included in the will. But that raises it's own set of problems.
    – Zero
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 20:00

2 Answers 2


Exactly the same thing that stops the same rogue lawyer from putting on a mask and robbing a bank. One is the crime of fraud and the other the crime of armed robbery but they are both crimes.

People commit crimes all the time; that is why nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are in jail right now - some of them may even be in there for crimes they actually committed!

Were your lawyer to commit this crime he may get caught or he may not; if he does he's going away for a long time and can never work as a lawyer again. So it's simply a matter of risk assessment; oh, and ethics

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    "So it's simply a matter of risk assessment" and note that if you're a lawyer for a multi-billionaire then you are very likely already paid very handsomely. One of the reasons that high level executives, lawyers, etc. are paid very well is not because their work is so much more valuable than anyone else, it's to prevent them from jumping ship or doing stuff like this.
    – David
    Commented Jul 1, 2022 at 18:41

There are many, many things wrong with the premise. First being the fact that when there's lots of money involved, there's a proportionately large amount of scrutiny involved.

One of the big problems with the "lawyer hides the will in return for a kickback" scheme is that it isn't just a fraud on the parties named in the document, it's a fraud on the court. The probate court itself is an injured party, and if there's anything that can make a court angry, it's being the victim of fraud.

Another hole in the scenario: Just because a lawyer was chosen to draft a will, doesn't mean that lawyer has any connection whatsoever to the probate process itself (beyond perhaps producing an archived copy of the will document itself, if such an archived copy still exists).

Bear in mind that in all scenarios discussed, there's a "prisoner's dilemma" for the other participants.

So, for those and lots of other reasons, the scenario you describe is unlikely. It's not terribly UNLIKELY however, that wills executed through the years by eccentric millionaires go undiscovered, languishing in the archives of law practitioners who were hired one-off to draft a will, never to be heard from again.

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