"Are Millions Missing? Some Relatives Want To Know. Others Don't."

            One of the premises of this Blog is that estate and trust disputes will become more common over the coming years and decades, in large part due to the graying of America given the large baby boomer generation actively retiring, the fact that people are living longer and many of them will develop dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, and because we are in the midst of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in human history.  Accordingly, there will be increasingly more attention given to this subject. 

 

            A recent example of that is a New York Times article entitled “Are Millions Missing?  Some Relatives Want To Know.  Others Don’t” that features our law firm’s clients, Virginia and Curt Noel, and their years-long struggle to discover the truth surrounding their family’s wealth. We were privileged to represent Virginia and Curt in multiple legal proceedings both in federal court and state court, as they sought to unravel the mysterious and unfortunate events that surrounded the whereabouts of the assets left by Virginia’s mother, Rose McKee, and father, Dr. Bobby McKee, a prominent Jonesboro, Arkansas ophthalmologist and entrepreneur.  

 

            As the article states, between our law firm, our co-counsel, Asa Hutchinson, III, other law firms across the country, and a myriad of other financial experts and other consultants, the Noels have spent over a million dollars pursuing their investigation and litigation through the courts.  Most people are not blessed with the Noels’ resources to pursue such matters for the years which it has taken, but for them it was never about the money but was rather about the truth.  Their quest continues and can be followed at www.misplacedtrust.com

 

            I encourage you to read the New York Times article and then consider whether or not you might have a similar experience with regard to your wealth or your family.  If you are the potential beneficiary of a will or trust it pays to be diligent about your rights and be attentive to other beneficiaries and fiduciaries who may be less than diligent, attentive, or transparent.  If you are an executor or a trustee, this story is a good reminder that you must be attentive to your fiduciary obligations, mindful of the estate planning documents, and cognizant of your duties and obligations under the pertinent law. 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House, Downing & Lueken, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Understanding Estate, Trust, Probate And Inheritance Litigation In Terms Of "Pie"

I love pie, and it's probably my favorite type of dessert.  I have fond childhood memories of my Grandmother making fantastic butterscotch meringue pies whenever we would travel to her house back when I grew up in Oklahoma.  Every Fall I look forward to eating pecan pie, and I can cook a pretty good one using a recipe and method that I read about in Southern Living magazine many years ago.  In my opinion, cakes, cookies and other desserts pale in comparison to a big slice of pie accompanied by a big scoop of Blue Bell ice cream (or Arkansas-based Yarnell's).  

That said, I find that when talking to clients it is often helpful to explain estate, trust, probate and inheritance litigation and disputes  in terms of "pie."  For example, sometimes the question is "who gets a piece of the pie?"  There could be a conflict   about who the beneficiaries are in a will or trust.  Or, if there was not a will or trust a Court could need to determine who the deceased's heirs are for purposes of intestate succession.  If a will or trust sought to exclude someone and they challenge it, the enforcement or non-enforcement of that term could dictate whether or not they get a piece of the pie at all.

Sometimes the issue revolves around "how big a slice does everyone get?"  For example, a will or trust often leaves different types or percentages of property to different people or entities.  In an intestate estate where the deceased did not leave a will or trust (or perhaps those documents were found to be invalid), one's status as a surviving spouse, surviving child, surviving parent, surviving sibling, surviving grandchild, etc. will determine the size and extent of one's piece of the pie.

Other times the question involves "what is even in the pie?"  What I mean by  that is that property formally conveyed to a trust should pass through the trust, but property not conveyed to that trust will pass outside the trust (typically through the estate).  Likewise, whether or not an estate is formally opened or a trust even exists, some property can automatically pass by beneficiary designations (IRA's, life insurance, etc.) or operation of law (transfer on death accounts, joint tenants with right of   survivorship accounts, etc.) instead of passing to or through a trust, estate, etc.  

Finally, occasionally the concern focuses upon "whether anyone ate some (or all) of the pie before it got sliced  up?"  In other words, if there was a misappropriation of monies or assets the dispute may necessarily be primarily concerned with (1) attempting to investigate, locate and recover the missing property, and (2) holding whomever took it civilly or criminally responsible, if appropriate.  

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Removal Of A Trustee Under Arkansas Law

My previous blog post generally discussed principles associated with the removal of executors or personal representatives of an estate.  This post is similar except that it analyzes this issue in the context of trusts rather than estates.  Every trustee of a trust, and every beneficiary of a trust, should be aware of these principles as well.  

To remedy a breach of trust under the Arkansas Trust Code, the Court may:

(1) compel the trustee to perform the trustee’s duties;

(2) enjoin the trustee from committing a breach of trust;

(3) compel the trustee to redress a breach of trust by paying money, restoring property, or other means;

(4) order a trustee to account;

(5) appoint a special fiduciary to take possession of the trust property and administer the trust;

(6) suspend the trustee;

(7) remove the trustee as provided in § 28-73-706;

(8) reduce or deny compensation to the trustee;

(9) subject to §28-73-1012, void an act of the trustee, impose a lien or a constructive trust on property, or trace trust property wrongfully disposed of and recover the property or its proceeds, or

(10) order any other appropriate relief. 

See Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-1001(b).

Also, section 706 of the Trust Code further elaborates on the removal of an trustee:

(a) the settlor, a co-trustee, or a beneficiary may request the court to remove a trustee, or a trustee may be removed by the court on its own initiative.

(b) A court may remove a trustee if:

(1) the trustee has committed a serious breach of trust;

(2) lack of cooperation among co-trustees substantially impairs the administration of the trust;

(3) because of unfitness, unwillingness, or persistent failure of the trustee to administer the trust effectively, the court determines that removal of the trustee best serves the interests of the beneficiaries;

(4) there has been a substantial change of circumstances or removal is requested by all of the qualified beneficiaries, the court finds the removal of the trustee best serves the interests of all of the beneficiaries and is not inconsistent with a material purpose of the trust, and suitable co-trustee or successor trustee is available.

See Ark. Code Ann. § 28-73-706(a) and (b) (emphasis added).

So, as one can tell the grounds for removal of a trustee are very broad.  Accordingly, similar to estates, those administering trusts in the State of Arkansas must take their duties seriously so as to avoid placing themselves in a situation in which their actions and inactions could be questioned.  Similarly, beneficiaries of a trust should be vigilant in monitoring the conduct of the trustee to ensure that they are properly doing their job.  In the appropriate case, Arkansas courts have not hesitated to remove trustees where the facts and circumstances warrant it. 

Avoiding Estate, Trust & Probate Litigation

Since one of my areas of practice is estate, trust & probate litigation, it is obviously not in my economic self-interest to counsel against getting involved in this type of litigation in the first place.  However, first and foremost is a lawyer's duty to his or her client, which while sometimes involves filing or defending a lawsuit can also mean trying to avoid that lawsuit altogether.  After all, Abraham Lincoln once advised:  "Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser---in fees, expenses and waste of time."  That is still generally solid advice, although sometimes the fight just cannot be avoided.

That said, U.S. News published a good little article over the Thanksgiving holiday entitled "8 Tips To Avoid Nasty Estate Surprises" which provides some good pointers for avoiding estate, trust & probate litigation.  In summary:

1.  Pick aa reputable, experienced lawyer who has not performed any work for any of the other beneficiaries.  Basically, you want an attorney who knows what they are doing in this area, who does not have a conflict of interest, and who will be representing your interests (only). 

2.  Pick an administrator who can get along with the family, maybe even a professional fiduciary (like a bank trust department) if no one else could practically fill this role.  This is a biggie---oftentimes when one beneficiary is chosen to act as executor or trustee it can cause consternation with respect to the other beneficiaries. 

3.  Talk about your intentions with family members before any will or trust is drafted, in order to preclude surprises and fights after death and making everyone aware of your plans and desires.  Open, honest communication can go a long way toward heading off battles over the family fortune. 

4.  Consider your state's laws and create trusts if necessary to bypass probate if it is particularly burdensome under applicable state law.  Again, our law firm engages in estate, trust & probate litigation---not estate planning---however we can refer you to some reputable attorneys in this area if needed.

5.  Update the will or trust often so that challenges are less likely.  One of the best ways to avoid litigation is to occasionally update your documents---under facts and circumstances (lots of objective, detached witnesses, etc.) demonstrating the absence of fraud and undue influence from others---so that it can be demonstrated you were polishing your estate and trust objectives up until the end your life.

6.  Be sure to title your assets properly so that the assets pass through or outside of probate as you originally intended.  Too many folks spend a lot of money creating fancy trusts and then never do the relatively simple work of actually transferring assets into the trust. 

7.  Think about including a no-contest clause tied to testamentary gifts of a degree sufficient to discourage legal disputes.  To help avoid post-death disputes it is worth possibly including a penalty clause that essentially poses a risk of losing their piece of the pie for any beneficiary who challenges the instrument  in question after your death. 

8.  Consider allowing some discretion with respect to distribution of assets so that beneficiaries can agree to a distribution that best meets their own needs and desires.  There is no one-size-fits-all strategy and of course none of us have a crystal ball, so sometimes providing for some flexibility is often a good practical solution. 

While not a fool-proof plan to avoid estate, trust & probate litigation, the foregoing reflects some good first steps to staying out of the courts with respect to the family fortune.  As we are in the heart of the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, I extend my best wishes to you with hopes for a fuss-free next few weeks.

Legendary College Football Coach's Son Sues Stepmom Over Trust Obligations

We're in the heart of the 2009 college football season and the Arkansas Razorbacks are having a better year than last year under second-year Coach Bobby Petrino (thank goodness), although losing against the Florida Gators a couple of weeks ago still stings.  Transfer Ryan Mallett had a fantastic game yesterday against the South Carolina Gamecocks, and it is interesting that his former coach at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez, is having a fairly mediocre year in his second year leading the Wolverines. 

This serves as a nice little segue into my latest blog post about a story involving legendary Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler.  Before passing away in 2006, according to the university's website he coached the Wolverines for 21 seasons and had a winning percentage of .796 overall and .850 in the Big Ten Conference.  Although he was never able to win a national championship while at Michigan, he took the Wolverines to 17 bowl games and won 13 conference titles. 

Given his success as a college football coach, and given the money that head football coaches make at major Division I universities, there is no doubt that Coach Schembechler accumulated some substantial assets over the years.  It appears that there is now a family dispute with respect to those assets, as a recent article discusses how Schembechler's son has sued his stepmother (his father's third wife) in Ohio federal court over her alleged failure to provide quarterly statements about the trust under which he is evidently a beneficiary. 

This is one of the most common types of disputes in trust litigation, because one of the very reasons that people form trusts is because of confidentiality concerns, and yet at the same time the beneficiaries of that trust desire and to some extent are entitled to certain information about the trust (depending upon each state's laws).  It will be interesting to see whether this particular conflict evolves into a larger dispute over trust administration and assets or is resolved quickly once the accounting issue is straightened out.