Last week the San Bernardino County Sherriff’s office announced that they have arrested a caretaker for alleged forgery and identity theft of a family’s living trust.  This is big deal because wrongdoers are so rarely arrested and charged for their criminal actions in Trust and Will cases. 

Woman in Jail.jpg

According to the San Bernardino County Sherriff’s office, Stephanie Danna was arrested and charged with perjury, forgery and identify theft for allegedly forging a decedent’s signature on a Trust and falsifying notary signatures and fingerprints.  The decedent was Ernest Vilmos, who died in 2011.  After his death, Mr. Vilmos’ daughters, Julie Denges and Cheri Romano, filed a Trust contest action in San Bernardino Superior Court seeking to set aside the false documents.  That action is still pending. 

After nearly two years of civil litigation, the Sherriff’s office conducted a criminal investigation, executed search warrants, and put together a criminal case against Stephanie Danna.

“Julie and Cheri knew in their hearts that their father’s purported Trust was forged,” says Attorney Damian Garcia, of Banks, Garcia and Janis in Rancho Cucamonga, California—he represents Julie and Cheri.  “Very rarely do I see criminal action taken on a Trust matter like this because law enforcement usually views these as ‘civil cases’ even when they involve criminal financial activity,” said Garcia.

I agree with Mr. Garcia.  What Ms. Danna is accused of doing in this case is not uncommon.  Bad caretakers can be found in a surprising number of cases, and some have become sophisticated in siphoning off assets of a dependent elder.  But the criminal investigation and prosecution of these crimes is rare.  In my experience, I have seen wrongdoers steal in excess of $1 million and still not be investigated or prosecuted criminally.  Clients of mine have reported wrongdoers to law enforcement many times with no action being taken in most cases.

“The real difference maker here seems to be the forged signature and forged thumb print in the notary journal.  It seems to have peaked the interest of law enforcement and was most likely the deciding factor in their decision to conduct a criminal investigation,” said Damian Garcia. 

Hopefully, this case can be an example of how law enforcement can target and prosecute criminal wrongdoers in the Trust and Will field.  Those wrongdoers are out there and their actions wreak havoc in many estates.