Kathleen G. Kane - Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General - Protecting Pennsylvanians

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ASK THE ATTORNEY GENERAL:FINANCIAL PLANNERS, OR SCAMMERS?

 What should I know about estate planning offers?

Pennsylvania consumers, particularly senior citizens, are receiving an increasing number of solicitations from so-called experts offering financial and estate planning services. Consumers need to be aware that these individuals are often nothing more than sales agents looking to sell living trusts or investments that are of questionable value to consumers.

Planning an estate and choosing investments involve important legal, financial and personal decisions which, if done improperly, can have costly consequences. That's why it is important for you to look beyond fancy job titles and other credentials and gather as much information as possible about these offers.

The Pitch

Estate and financial planning solicitations often begin with an invitation to an "informational seminar" at a local hotel or community center, sometimes with the promise of free meals for those who attend. The presentations may provide general information on services and products supposedly designed to allow consumers to "avoid" taxes or probate or save money in some other manner. Afterwards, the presenters schedule follow-up appointments with consumers in their homes to discuss the consumers' finances. Consumers need to understand that these follow-up appointments, and even unsolicited door-to-door sales calls, are often staffed by individuals posing as specially-qualified advisors or passing themselves off as some other form of "trust," "estate," or "senior" expert or planner.

No matter what title the individual is using, do your homework on what is being sold and who is selling it. Disreputable businesses may only be looking to sell a particular product or service, rather than provide you with impartial guidance or services designed to meet your needs. Keep in mind that anyone can use generic titles, regardless of their training or education, in order to gain a consumer's trust. While there are legitimate credentials and titles which can only be earned after specialized education, a minimum number of years practicing in a particular field, and the successful completion of an exam, some businesses use made-up "titles" or credentials that can be acquired simply by paying a fee or after minimal "training."

Red Flags

No professional credential or job title can guarantee the quality of an advisor's services or ensure that your needs will be met. Be wary of anyone telling you otherwise and keep in mind the following red flags in estate and financial planning offers:

Scare Tactics: Avoid high-pressure sales tactics or sales pitches designed to take advantage of fears that your estate could be eaten-up by costs or that assets could be tied- up for years.

In Pennsylvania, Only Lawyers Can Give Legal Advice: Beware of non-lawyers giving legal interpretations or drafting legal papers for you. In some cases, individuals may imply that they are lawyers giving you impartial advice, when in reality, they are selling a specific product that may or may not suit your needs.

One Size Does Not Fit All: Watch out for fill-in-the-blank trust kits. Legitimate advisors will provide products and planning suited to your individual circumstances, rather than using pre-made kits of general applicability.

General Statements About Estate or Tax Laws: Con artists will frequently exaggerate the impact of these tax or estate laws or the benefits of their products and services. Pennsylvania's estate laws are a lot less complicated than some salespersons may lead you to believe.

Consumers can contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555 or www.attorneygeneral.gov to file complaints about estate and financial planning offers or obtain a free copy of "Beware of Living Trust Scams," prepared by the Office of Attorney General.