Today’s grave robbers exploit the dead, harm the living

21st Century Grave Robbers:  Exploit the Dead, Harm the Living, Part 1
Lou Ann Anderson
January 28, 2009
Inheritance rights are becoming an increasingly contentious issue here in the U.S. as growing numbers of Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) cases surface.  That is, efforts to divert assets (via wills, trusts or guardianships) in a manner contrary to the known wishes of a decedent or disabled/incapacitated person.  This is not a problem confined to the U.S. as evidenced by Diarmuid Hannigan, an Australian businessman, whose book Lawyers or Grave Robbers? describes looting actions perpetrated on his late mother’s estate.   These acts are often prompted by a disgruntled family member or wannabe heir, but they can also occur at the hand (or in concert) with an unscrupulous lawyer.

Elizabeth Moira Hannigan spent the last years of her life in a nursing home and during this time, enlisted the services of a lawyer to prepare a will in which all four of her children were to receive an equal share of her estate.  Mrs. Hannigan allowed the insertion of a clause in her will that positioned the share designated for Diarmuid, her oldest son, to be withheld from distribution in the event his personal financial situation might be in jeopardy due to an export company he owned.  The matter which prompted Mrs. Hannigan’s concern had been resolved years before and consultation of anyone within the family aside from Mrs. Hannigan – an elderly woman confined to a nursing home due to an irreparable broken hip and who, per her family, had a limited (5-10 minute) attention span, was on significant pain killers and had been diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder and other cognitive problems – could have provided clarification to allay her fears.

The lawyer and Mrs. Hannigan’s youngest daughter were to serve as co-executors.   Through several revisions, the will also ended up with provisions for replacing the lawyer/executor in the event of a resignation or retirement as well as indicating that, while the lawyer/executor would not receive an executor’s commission, he would be allowed to charge a standard legal rate as if doing work in a normal professional capacity.  Interestingly, no replacement provisions were made should the family executor resign.

Mrs. Hannigan died on June 21, 2004, and within weeks, her family began to realize that the execution of their mother’s will was likely to produce an outcome far different from what she intended.  The beneficiaries (including the co-executor sister) informed the lawyer/executor that they wished to be treated equally and that the provision for withholding Diarmuid’s share was never necessary and most assuredly not currently applicable.  They asked that all shares be distributed equally and within a timely manner.  The lawyer/executor refused citing a letter alleged to have been written by Mrs. Hannigan which justified his withholding of the funds.  When asked to provide beneficiaries (including the co-executor) with a copy, the lawyer/executor claimed attorney privilege and thus began the financial diminishment of Elizabeth Hannigan’s estate.

Diarmuid Hannigan writes of an initial meeting between the lawyer/executor and his siblings.  “At this meeting my late mother’s lawyer initially stated that he hoped things would not get complicated as it would be very expensive for the estate.  This statement was taken as a threat by my brothers and sisters.”  The refusal to distribute Diarmuid’s share prompted an exchange of correspondence – billable hours for the lawyer/executor – with one letter characterized as “this letter from the lawyer/executor clearly indicates that he is going to create a dispute, a dispute that does not exist between any of the beneficiaries of the estate.  A dispute created wholly and solely by the lawyer/executor without any evidence whatsoever, as far as my late mother’s children are concerned.  A dispute that can only benefit the lawyer/executor and damage the value of my late mother’s estate and her childrens’ emotional wellbeing.”   Under cover of this dispute, the lawyer/executor also appointed another lawyer from his firm to serve as his legal representative.  More billable hours.

Any sense of resolution was further diminished as health issues resulting from the stress of her mother’s death and the escalating estate dispute case prompted the younger sister to resign her position as co-executor.  The beneficiaries then learned that, unlike with the lawyer/executor, the will contained no succession plan for the family executor position thus leaving the beneficiaries even more at the mercy of the lawyer/executor.

Lawyers or Grave Robbers? is eye-opening reading for disbelievers or those unfamiliar with the use of probate documents to perpetrate Involuntary Redistribution of Assets acts.  The methods described are identical to what we see here in the U.S.  Other questionable acts described in the book include a refusal by the lawyer/executor to allow the family to secure their mother’s medical records.  This was a legal “twofer” in that it denied access to potentially damaging documents and generated billable hours.  Action on the part of Diarmuid Hannigan prevented the lawyer/executor from placing family heirlooms in an auction such that the beneficiaries would have had to potentially bid against members of the general public in hopes of securing items valued within their family for generations.  By May 2005 when a first distribution took place, nearly $40,000 (AUD) from the estate had been spent to pay for the lawyer/executor’s activities with more expenses anticipated.  Diarmuid’s family had personally spent another $18,000 (AUD) at that same point.

Actions as experienced by the Hannigan family are a result of an adversarial legal system that operates with no accountability.  Despite the legal systems of Australia and the U.S. having many differences, responses to IRA cases are remarkably similar – and the responses don’t bode well for average citizens.

In a second part to this column, we’ll discuss perspectives on a legal system that Diarmuid Hannigan describes as “over the people, not for the people.” The impact on individual property rights and heirs’ rights of inheritance could be massive.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture.  She is the Online Producer at and may be contacted at

21st Century Grave Robbers:  Exploit the Dead, Harm the Living, Part 2

  • Kim Manire

    This nightmarish treatment of people and assests has got to stop.

    We have got to put a stop to this abuse of power and greed.

    Thank you again EoD for putting the word out. Once again another great article.

  • Kathrine Sweeney

    Thank you for a well articulated article describing the issues many elderly victims, their familys and their Advocates are facing in today’s State Governments’ Probate and Family Courts INjustice system. Monitoring, checks and balances need to be implemented to provide transparency, responsibility and accountability in these court systems currently easily transforming themselves into KANGAROO courts denying civil rights and due process of law.

    With the current depressed economy, more and more professionals are profiting off vulnerable citizens with assets for their own personal and professional benefit

  • Sharon Denney

    What happened to the children of Elizabeth Hannigan is an outrage, but sadly, all too typical of what is happening in probate courts (the basement of the court system) across America.

    A moderately reasonable person (even a minimally reasonable person) can easily identify and be scandalized by the low level at which this ethically challenged attorney is operating (a true bottom dweller). But for reasons that will never make sense to me, both the courts and the bar associations have failed to note the obvious crimes being committed in our courts. If the judiciary and the grievance committees of the bar followed the standards they have sworn to abide, if they applied the laws/rules they are charged with upholding, if they gave a darn about the difference between right and wrong, our vulnerable citizens and their families would cease to be victims of this “injudicial” racket in the probate arena.

    Until they do what they have sworn to do, what they are paid to do, and what they are charged with doing, American citizens will continue to be ripped off by the system their hard earned dollars have purchased.