Senior Swindlers

Legacy Hunters Prey on Widows With Money to Burn

inheritance fraud story from HB10Sept georg supanz
A villa on Sylt, one of the most expensive real estate locations in Germany. Inheriting something like this would make you an instant millionaire - many times over.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Gaps in inheritance laws have enabled so-called legacy hunters to take advantage of wealthy older Germans. In one case, a former bank manager managed to become the sole heir of a wealthy widow. Now the original heirs are fighting for what they insist is their rightful inheritance.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • In Germany an estimated €175 billion ($226 billion) in assets will be passed on to the next generation each year until 2020.
    • Some one in 10 inheritances are contested, usually by family members. But the wealth at stake has led to a new profession: legacy hunters
    • They typically follow the same approach, targeting, befriending and ultimately inheriting the estates of their victims.
  • Audio

    Audio

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He was given the city’s badge of honor as a farewell gift. The mayor praised the savings bank director for his civic and community engagement, as a strong supporter of the arts and sciences and other local groups.

But on that day no one in the room knew about the greatest achievement of outgoing savings bank director Georg Dunkel*. He was about to become a multi-millionaire.

For many years, Mr. Dunkel and his savings bank had managed the account of Annegret König* and her husband, factory owner Ewald König*. Mr. Dunkel knew how much money was at stake. When Ewald König died, the wealthy widow – 21 years older than Mr. Dunkel – developed a close friendship with her bank manager and ended up adopting him in 2001, when he was 51.

The Empirica research institute estimates that in Germany some €175 billion ($226 billion) in assets will be passed on to the next generation each year until 2020. Disputes arise in one in 10 cases, usually among relatives. But the giant sums in question are increasingly attracting a different species: legacy hunters.

The culprits typically come from a handful of professions: in-home caregivers, doctors, lawyers and bank advisors. They use the information gained in their everyday work to select their victims. They establish close relationships with them with the ultimate goal of getting their targets, usually older people living alone, to name them as sole heirs.

Annegret König spent decades helping her husband build his life’s work, a small factory in Baden-Württemberg, that made measuring instruments, which sold for more €100,000 and periodically employed more than 100 people. A photo of Ewald König still hangs in the boardroom today.

Older employees still remember something Mr. Ewald said near the end of his life: “Kids, my wife and I are only doing all of this for you now.”

Mr. König died in 1994. He had already sold the factory for about 30 million deutschmarks (€15 million), because the childless couple had no heirs. His widow, Ms. König, continued to send money, ranging from several hundred to several thousand deutschmarks in some cases, to employees. They were pleased, but had no further expectations.

What they didn’t know is that the Königs planned to bequeath their personal assets to the employees. The “kids” were to receive millions.

Annegret König’s will specifically states how much each person is to receive with an unmistakable directive: “All provisions shall also apply to any legal successors of this company. Anyone not named in the will shall not become an heir.”

 

inheritance fraud story from HB10Sept pic2 private
The Königs in the 1980s. Source: Private

 

But the reality would be different. Shortly after Mr. König’s death, the bank director came into the widow’s life. Friends and employees noticed changes that made no sense to them.

A former employee who often stayed at the house to watch the dogs before Mr. König died was no longer welcome. Mr. König’s longstanding tax accountant, who had selected a vacation house on the wealthy island of Sylt for the couple, said she seemed to have become a different person. “She categorically rejected everything,” says the tax accountant.

Outsiders rarely notice what is happening. Ms. König never mentioned the bank director Mr. Dunkel by name, not even to her closest friends. But he became increasingly powerful behind the doors of her villa, and only five years after the death of Ewald König, Mr. Dunkel was named sole heir.

He was given full power of attorney less than half a year later. He was handling everything for the widow by then. Under the power of attorney, Mr. Dunkel’s authority extended to the limits prescribed by law and was to remain in effect after Ms. König’s death.

In November 1999, 16 days after the power of attorney was issued, Mr. Dunkel received the Sylt vacation house, worth about 2.5 million deutschmarks. The next year, the bank director had the widow adopt him. His own mother is still alive today and lives in his house.

 

Legacy hunters often come from professions such as in-home caregivers, doctors, lawyers and bank advisors.

In 2001, a new will suddenly emerged. In addition to being named sole heir, Mr. Dunkel was appointed executor of the estate. There was no longer any mention of the “kids” – the former employees.

Even specialist experts find the Dunkel case astonishing. “No court here in Munich would have allowed that adoption to proceed,” says Michael Bonefeld, an inheritance law expert. But there were no significant hurdles in rural Baden-Württemberg. Although a local court voiced its concerns and denied the adoption petition, a higher regional court rubber-stamped the new family relationship. Mr. Dunkel had acquired a second mother and a potential inheritance worth millions.

From a purely economic perspective, the adoption was very advantageous for Mr. Dunkel. Due to his new legal situation – as the legal adoptee of the widow – his tax exemption allowance increased when he got the villa to 400,000 deutschmarks from 10,000.

There were several different wills when Annegret König died in 2012: the first one, in which the former employees were named as beneficiaries, and two other wills, in which Mr. Dunkel, the adopted son, was named as heir. He immediately challenged the first will.

Things seemed to be progressing in his favor until a circuit judge became suspicious. The Königs had drafted a type of will that cannot be amended by the surviving partner. As Ms. König’s adopted son, Mr. Dunkel would only be entitled to a statutory share, with the remaining assets going to the factory employees.

The judge notified the employees, and they decided to fight. They pooled their money and hired an attorney from Würzburg, Ulrich Bildl. He believes his clients stand a good chance of winning their case, but he also points out: “German law is somewhat unclear in these cases.”

Inheritance laws only exclude caregivers in nursing homes and public officials from receiving gifts and inheriting anything from those they care for. Savings bank directors are not subject to any such restrictions.

“What kind of laws are these that allow a bank advisor to misuse his knowledge and have himself named the heir of wealthy customers?” asked one of many disillusioned employees.

The chairman of the saving bank’s board of director calls the case a nightmare. The bank had heard rumors of the relationship, but “we were not notified of the fact that he had been given the vacation house, or of the power of attorney and the adoption,” he said.

Had they known, there would have been legal consequences. “Our employees may not accept any gifts in connection with their advisory capacity,” says the board chairman. He does not believe, however, that the bank could have done anything about the adoption.

Mr. Dunkel did not respond to attempts by Handelsblatt to contact him. Some time ago, he told a regional newspaper: “I am unwilling to provide any information. This is no one’s business. I don’t owe an explanation to anyone. I am merely executing the woman’s wishes.”

The widow’s assets have been frozen. The case has been moved around to a number of legal authorities, in part because some had to withdraw on the grounds of bias, and is now before a third circuit judge and a notary. A matter that was supposed to be kept private is now the talk of the town.

The drama continues well beyond death. Ewald König has been buried for 20 years in the family plot on a hill above the town where they lived.

But where is his wife buried? Mr. Dunkel, the executor of her estate and adoptive son, has kept her burial location a secret, depriving Annegret König and her friends of one last thing: a dignified farewell.

*Names have been changed.

This article was translated by Christopher Sultan. To contact the author: hussla@handelsblatt.com

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