Inheritance Hijackers: Who Wants To Steal Your Inheritance And How To Protect It

At the recommendation of a client, I have recently started reading a fascinating book entitled Inheritance Hijackers:  Who Wants To Steal Your Inheritance And How To Protect It (Ovation Books 2009) written by a Florida attorney named Robert C. Adamski.  The book is primarily written for beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries of an inheritance.  Mr. Adamski's book sets forth an extensive discussion of the growing phenomenon which he calls "inheritance theft," and which of course is a primary component of what I do in my own law practice as well (representation of beneficiaries, but also fiduciaries such as trustees andexecutors, in estate, trust and probate litigation).  "Inheritance theft" is defined on page 2 of the book as "the act of diverting assets from the intended recipient to another person[.]" 

 

While the book is available for sale at Mr. Adamski's own website, Amazon.com, and I'm sure other places, a good overview of the phenomenon can be found below which is directly from a prior post by Mr. Adamski: 

1.  Who steals inheritances?

Inheritance theft is a crime of opportunity committed by those we place our trust in. These are family members, close associates, care givers and others we depend on as we grow older. Inheritance hijacking is always a surprise to the victim, who never expected a trusted family member or friend to betray their trust.

2.  Who are the victims of inheritance hijacking?

There are always two classes of victims. The first is the person who intended to give the inheritance. The second is the person or persons who were the intended recipient of the inheritance. As we age we are all potential victims because we become weaker in our physical and mental ability. We then are forced to rely upon and put our trust in others. This gives the trusted persons the opportunity to hijack our inheritance.

3.  How are inheritances hijacked?

The hijacker's bag of tricks includes undue influence, duress, forgery, theft by an administrator, marriage, and more. Administrators of probate estates and trusts are common hijackers. They have the opportunity and ability to take advantage. Marriage is the 'Silver Bullet" in the world of inheritance theft because it is all but impossible to overturn a marriage which hijacks an estate. Care givers earn the trust of their victims and as a result are often inheritance hijackers. An important element of inheritance theft is the trust which is gained by the hijacker and later betrayed. Without that element of trust it would be very difficult to hijack an inheritance.

4.  How can I determine if my inheritance is at risk?

Take the Inheritance Risk Quiz at www.ProtectYourEstate.Net to determine the risk to the inheritance you intend to give or the inheritance you expect to receive.

5.  How do I protect the inheritance I intend to give or the inheritance I expect to receive?

Self education and proper estate planning are the first steps. But it does not end there. It is vital to understand how inheritances are hijacked and how to guard against inheritance hijacking. The book, INHERITANCE HIJACKERS: Who Wants to Steal Your Inheritance and How to Protect It, was written to help people protect their families from inheritance theft. Learn more about the book at www.ProtectYourEstate.Net

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I have not yet finished Mr. Adamski's book, but can already tell that I will be recommending it to beneficiary-clients, and potential clients, who anticipate possibly receiving inheritances.  The book contains an immense amount of valuable information for a very reasonable price. 

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, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Update On Gary Coleman Estate Dispute

As a child of the 1980's, I grew up watching Diff'rent Strokes like most people my age.  A white, middle-class kid growing up in Oklahoma, I did not have much in common with two African-American orphaned children from Harlem taken in by a rich Park Avenue businessman, but the show constantly had me laughing, especially when Gary Coleman ("Arnold") would throw out his catchphrase "What'choo talkin' bout, Willis?"   So it was disappointing to hear about the recent death of Coleman, whose post-Diff'rent Strokes life was seemingly as scandal-ridden as the lives of his child co-stars on the show, Todd Bridges ("Willis") and Dana Plato ("Kimberly"). 

Coleman was apparently taken advantage of in life (in the early 1990's he successfully sued his parents and business advisor for almost $1.3 million over misappropriation of his $3.8 million trust fund), and now that he has passed away it looks like there may be additional controversy as well.  Specifically, another blogger who writes on similar topics has provided a good update on the documents and characters who are coming out of the woodwork following his death.  Wikipedia of course also has a good summary of his life and recent events. 

Gary Coleman did not have "Michael Jackson money" but it appears that there is still enough to fight over.  Notwithstanding that Coleman filed bankruptcy in 1999, it is possible that the potential heirs fussing over the leftovers havea special interest in the intellectual property and other rights which could conceivably have value in the years to come as the people in my generation watch reruns and relive the glorious(?) early 1980's.

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, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Federal Appeals Court Rules Against Estate Of Pinup Anna Nicole Smith, "Widow" Of Elderly Texas Billionaire

One of the longest-running estate and trust battles on record added another chapter with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' recent ruling in the saga involving Anna Nicole Smith, now deceased, and her estate's attempt to claim a chunk of her former husband's billion-dollar fortune.  Specifically,  Anna Nicole, stripper-turned-Playboy model-turned-pop-celebrity, married elderly oil magnate J. Howard Marshall in the last year of his life.  She later claimed that Marshall promised her over $300 million although there was apparently no written documentation supporting the gift. 

A msnbc.com article from a couple of days ago summarizes the 15-year legal battle and also contains a link to the 68-page ruling: 

"The convoluted dispute over J. Howard Marshall's money has its roots in a Houston strip club where he met Smith. The two were wed in 1994 when he was 89 and she 26. Marshall died the next year and his will left his estate to his son.

Smith challenged the will in a Houston probate court, alleging the billionaire's son illegally coerced his father to exclude the former Playboy model from sharing the estate. She alleged that her husband promised to leave her more than $300 million above the $7 million in cash and gifts showered on her during their 14-month marriage.

While the probate case was pending in Houston, Smith filed for bankruptcy in Los Angeles, alleging in federal court filings that her husband promised her a large share of the estate.

In late 2000, the bankruptcy court awarded Smith $474.75 million, which a federal district judge reduced to $89.5 million in 2002.

Between those two decisions, a jury in the Houston probate court ruled in March 2001 against Smith. The jury found the billionaire was mentally fit and under no duress when he wrote out a will that left everything to his son.

Since then, the two sides have been fighting over which court to obey.

Smith argued that the federal courts were in charge because the bankruptcy court was the first to rule.

Pierce Marshall countered the decision was the jurisdiction of the probate court, because that's where the first legal action was filed and the site of the only full-blown trial."

Ultimately the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the estate of Marshall's son (who died in 2006) and against the estate of Anna Nicole (you will recall that she died of an apparent drug overdose at age 39 in 2007).  Specifically, the Court held that the bankruptcy court did not have authority to decide a probate dispute such that its $475.75 million award was a mere advisory opinion.  The Court also concluded that the lower court should have relied upon the probate jury's verdict against Anna Nicole and dismissed the entire case rather than merely reducing the award to almost $90 million. 

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, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Arkansas Court Of Appeals Rejects Cousin's Attempt To Set Aside Gifts To The Decedent's "Yardman"

One common thread running throughout this blog since its inception has been the issue of competency, i.e., the ability of a person to make informed decisions.  Conflicts often arise when ill or elderly people are claimed to have made signficant decisions regarding disposition of their property shortly before they died---sometimes the decision will be legitimate, the culmination of some long, thought-out plan that just never was memorialized on paper until shortly before their death---whereas sometimes the "decision" will be illegitimate, the product of undue influence or overreaching by a dishonest relative, family friend, or advisor.  Whatever the facts and circumstances, it can be difficult to prove that the person did not have competency to make the decision that they purportedly made.  A recent Arkansas Court of Appeals decision demonstrates that the outcome of these disputes usually boils down to the specific evidence that was presented to the trial court, and ultimately what evidence that the trial court found to be the most credible. 

For example, on March 3, 2010, the Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Deslauriers v. Marilyn Irene Deslauriers Revocable Trust, 2010 Ark.App. 211.  An appeal from Lonoke County Circuit Court, the appellant (Killeen) attempted to invalidate certain documents (quitclaim deed, revocable trust, will, etc.) executed by her cousin, the deceased, during and after her 2005 stay in a hospital due to a stroke.  As a result of those documents, the appellee (Richard, the deceased's "yardman") received the bulk of the cousin's estate.  Killeen filed suit after the cousin's death to contest the validity of the documents in question, contending that the cousin was not competent to execute them due to her medical condition. 

Under Arkansas law, the party contesting the validity of a will generally has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence ("more likely than not"), (1) that the decedent lacked mental capacity at the time the will was executed or (2) that the decedent was acting under undue influence.  The Deslauriers Court affirmed the trial court's ruling that the cousin attempting to set aside the documents did not satisfy that burden. 

Killeen presented the testimony of multiple doctors who had treated the deceased around the time of her execution of the documents, and they all testified  that she suffered from dementia and would purportedly be incompetent to sign the documents (though they were admittedly not in attendance at the signing).  Medical records also demonstrated a range of impairment (from mild to severe) at different times during the relevant time period.  Killeen likewise presented the testimony of two non-medical witnesses, one of whom contended that  the deceased was mentally incompetent (in their experience) and both of whom testified that the deceased intended to keep her property "in the family."

Richard presented the testimony of the lawyer whom the cousin used to prepare the documents in question, and he testified that he was very careful to determine whether his client was legally competent to execute the documents.  The attorney also testified that he had been hired to prepare a power of attorney so that Killeen and Richard could be placed in charge of the deceased's business affairs, and that Killeen herself believed the deceased to be an odd person but very competent.  Two other witnesses also testified, in a manner favoring Richard's position, to the extent that they were disinterested employees working at the hospital where the deceased was treated and they observed her as competent when they witnessed her signing of the will.   Richard also offered other evidence in the form of the attorney testifying that he met with the deceased several times after her initial execution of the documents, and in the  form of a doctor who treated the deceased remarking that he was impressed how mentally capable (though not physically capable) she remained after her stroke.

In sum, the trial court concluded that the cousin did not prove incompetency and that the deceased was sufficiently competent at the time that she executed the documents.  The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that while proof of medical condition around the time of the execution of the documents is relevant and important, ultimately the medical condition at the time of execution is paramount.  The Court seemed to attach particular significance to the testimony of the witnesses who were actually in the room when the decedent signed the documents in question.  Observing that it is possible for a testator to execute a document during a "lucid interval" in a period where they may otherwise be incompetent as a general matter, the case generally demonstrates the difficulty that a party can have in attempting to prove a testator's   incompetency. 

Court Rules Testator Was Not Under Insane Delusions When He Revoked His Will

It has been estimated that well over 1/2 of all Americans do not have a will.  I personally know many attorneys that do not even have a will, even though virtually every Arkansas lawyer passed a bar examination covering wills and trusts and more than likely also took a decedents' estates class in law school.  Whether because of not wanting to confront the inevitable (death), procrastination, or other factors, drafting a will is simply not high on the list of priorities for a large percentage of people. 

A primary reason why people do have a will, however, is to have direction and control as to whom their property will be distributed after their death.  Dying without a will is called dying "intestate," and the intestacy laws of the State of Arkansas set forth a rather strict statutory scheme detailing how a person's property will be divied up (to children, descendants of children, surviving spouse, parents of the decedent, etc.).  If a person does have a will, but then validly revokes it without ever executing a new one, then that person will "die intestate" as well.

That is what happened in the recent appeal of Heirs of F.D. Goza, Jr., et al. v. Estate of William E. Potts, Deceased, CA 09-235 (February 17, 2010).  Specifically, this was a probate case in which the former in-laws of the decedent, Mr. Potts, were attempting to take their shares as beneficiaries of a 1989 will which, the estate asserted, was revoked sometime between 2002 and Mr. Potts' 2006 death.  The appellants, relatives of Mr. Potts' deceased wife, Ms. Goza, argued that Mr. Potts lacked testamentary capacity and was under insane delusions when he revoked his will.  The trial court disagreed, ruled that Mr. Potts died intestate (meaning that Mr. Potts' property amounting to several hundred thousand dollars went to persons other than the appellants), and the Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The facts and circumstances surrounding Mr. Potts' revocation were interesting to say the least, and involved Mr. Potts marking "void" over each paragraph, writing "bastard" and "get nothing" on the will, applying Liquid Paper over the names of the beneficiaries, and later shredding the document in front of witnesses.  There were tales of alleged affairs and "wife stealing," temper tantrums, and other curious claims, but in the end the Court held that "the evidence clearly showed that Bill was an irascible, angry, suspicious, controlling, profane, and difficult man for most of his adult life; however, we cannot say that the trial court erred in refusing to find that he labored under insane delusions."   

The lesson learned from this case is that not only must a testator have the capacity to execute a will (the ability to understand the effects if executed), the testator much also have the same capacity to later revoke that will after it has been executed.  As the Court held, "complete sanity in a medical sense is not essential to testamentary capacity, provided power to think rationally exists."  Given the steep standard for proving lack of capacity by a testator, contesting a will (or, in this case, a will revocation) can be a difficult task in the absence of very persuasive evidence.    

Court Rules Handwritten Note Found By Deceased's Mother Did Not Result In Change Of IRA Beneficiary

As previously discussed on this Blog, a common fact scenario in estate, trust and probate lawsuits involves an eleventh-hour change in a dying person's final wishes regarding their property.  Quite often the last-minute decision appears legitimate, although occasionally there is an aura of suspicious facts and circumstances surrounding the event which arises to the level of an "inheritance theft."  Frequently the change in question is expressed in the form of a handwritten note, and courts are commonly called upon to rule whether or not such "wishes" will actually be  enforced.

On January 27, 2010, the Arkansas Court of Appeals addressed a somewhat similar situation in the case of Nunneman v. Estate of Donald T. Grubbs, et al, Case No. 2010 Ark.App. 75.  Specifically, Mr. Grubbs had named Ms. Nunnenman as beneficiary of his IRA, and a few days before his death evidently called a lawyer to his hospital bed and executed a will, leaving all of his property to his mother, Ms. Grubbs.  She then asked the Court to freeze certain IRA monies contending that she had discovered a 2005 note in Mr. Grubbs' bible which stated:  "My Will.  I Donnie Grubbs want all of my estate All IRA and any SBC Telco and all other assets and worldly goods to go to my Mother Shervena Grubbs.  Being of sound mind.  Donnie Grubbs."  Ms. Grubbs alleged that she had found the note in the presence of a coworker, but that witness claimed that she had not known of the note's existence before the trial. 

After considering the evidence, the trial court ruled that the handwritten note should have the effect of changing the IRA beneficiary.  Ms. Nunnenman appealed and the Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, ruling that it was clear error to find an effective change of the IRA beneficiary.  Specifically, the Court pointed to the conflicts in the testimony regarding the discovery of the note and also focused upon the fact that the very person who discovered the note was the same person who would end up benefitting from its discovery.  The Court also opined that it was significant that while Mr. Grubbs had undertaken steps to call a lawyer to come to his bedside, he had not taken similar measures to change his IRA beneficiary. 

In sum, this case is a good example of the heavy burden that a party has when attempting to prove a change in property disposition by means of a handwritten document.  As a general matter the Court will need to be presented with a strong showing of evidence before favorably considering such a request. 

Billionaire's Former Lover's Shenanigans Fail In Will Contest

Most estate and trust conflicts for which our law firm is retained, either to represent the fiduciary (executor, trustee, etc.) or the beneficiary to whom the fiduciary duty is owed, involve anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars.  The fact is that the substantial time and expense associated with litigating smaller amounts in dispute can often be cost-prohibitive for the client.  Because the matters that we assist with typically involve family fortunes within the above-described range, wealth wars erupting over $4.2-plus billion are rare indeed.

However, that is precisely what occurred as recently noted in a February 2, 2010 post by the Michigan Probate Law Blog, in the case of Hong Kong tycoon Nina Wang.  Asia's wealthiest woman, she died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 69.  Following her passing, a gentleman named Tony Chan, who also was her former lover and feng shui master, revealed a 2006 will which purported to leave her entire fortune (which has been estimated to possibly range up to $13 billion) to him instead of to charity.  In what might be the mother of all will contests, the Court ruled that the will was a forgery and that the signatures contained on the document were a "highly skilled simulation."  In fact, in a 326-page opinion, the court held that Mr. Chan "lied and withheld relevant information from the court regarding the circumstances leading to the preparation of the document." 

Lost in the fact that Mr. Chan has apparently now been arrested for his shenanigans is the fact that another will of Ms. Wang's actually bequested $10 million to Mr. Chan.  Seems like Mr. Chan could have benefitted from a phrase that we often toss around here in Razorback country, which rings especially true in this case:  "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered."   

UPDATED: Dispute Erupts Over Wealth Of Deceased Billionaire Shopping Mall Developer

Pretty much anyone who has lived in Central Arkansas over the last few decades has been aware of if not actually visited University Mall in Little Rock's midtown area.  While it used to be the hot spot for shopping many moons ago, in more recent years it became better known for its empty stores and the litigation that resulted from disputes over the mall's management.  The mall closed in 2007, demolition began in 2008, and a brand new mixed-use development appears imminent for the property in the next year or two.  

Anyone familiar with University Mall is also undoubtedly aware of its close proximity to Park Plaza Mall.  Ever since moving to Arkansas back in 1992, I never understood why University was built almost literally next door to Park Plaza (built a few years earlier in 1959), yet another enclosed shopping mall.  But I guess that's why I'm a mere lawyer and the folks who make the big bucks are mall magnates like Melvin Simon

Specifically, University Mall was developed by Melvin Simon & Associates, an Indianapolis-based real estate development and management company which later became known as Simon Property Group.  I mention this because Simon Property Group is evidently the largest public U.S. real estate company, and shopping mall development made the company's namesake---Mr. Simon---a very wealthy man.  He and his brother, who also co-founded the company, eventually purchased the Indiana Pacers franchise of the National Basketball Association. 

According to a recent post on the Florida Probate & Trust Litigation Blog,  the Wall Street Journal writes that a wealth war has begun over the terms of Mr. Simon's will.  Apparently, Mr. Simon's wife was only supposed to receive approximately one-third of his fortune and, after some changes were evidently made to his will a few months before his death, she now stands to receive about one-half.  Considering that his wealth has been estimated at $1-2 billion depending upon the fluctuating stock price of his company, even minor changes in his will could amount to a major redistribution of wealth.  Notably, the changes cut out Mr. Simon's three children from his first marriage.  

At least one of those children is now suing Mrs. Simon, their stepmother, contending that she unduly influenced Mr. Simon and persuaded him to change his will to reduce the children's inheritances.  The lawsuit also alleges that Mr. Simon had dementia and needed assistance signing the document, to which Mrs. Simon has now apparently responded that while he did in fact have Parkinson's Disease and needed help with his signature, he voluntarily signed a new will and trust of his own free will.  This will be a wealth war worth watching in the next few months. 

Seemingly sudden changes to wills and trusts shortly before someone dies are one of the most common disputes arising in estate, trust and probate litigation.  As the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire and ultimately pass away, there will no doubt be millions more similar disputes in the decades to come. 

UPDATE:  The following link contains the latest update (as of 2/11/10) from the Wall Street Journal.

American Bar Association Releases "Legal Guide For The Seriously Ill: Seven Key Steps To Get Your Affairs In Order"

Estate, trust and probate litigation often involves allegations that elderly adults' estate planning desires were not carried out after their deaths (either by someone's intentional acts or negligence), or that those elderly adults were taken advantage of and their estate planning desires were thwarted while they were still living (albeit without their knowledge or consent).  With respect to the latter scenario, sometimes the claims are true, and sometimes they aren't.  Issues of (in)competency, illness, undue influence, and fraud are often raised in these types of proceedings.   Each case is different and we have certainly represented those doing the accusing as well as those being accused. 

But one common theme that I have noticed in virtually all of these cases is that no matter how much estate planning that the elderly person actually did, in virtually every situation they probably could have done a bit more.  It might not have ultimately made a difference with respect to whether or not litigation would have resulted, but where more planning is undertaken that can frequently result in a lesser likelihood of later conflict. 

With this in mind, thanks to a tip on the Wills, Trusts & Estates Blog, the American Bar Association has apparently just released the "Legal Guide For The Seriously Ill: Seven Key Steps To Get Your Affairs In Order."  I've given the document an overview and  would heartily recommend it to anyone dealing with such circumstances (or anyone with a loved one who is dealing with this situation).

Arkansas Court Of Appeals Affirms Trial Court's Ruling In Will Contest

Earlier this month the Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled in an appeal from the Crawford County Circuit Court that the trial judge did not err in denying a motion to dismiss and finding that the statutory formalities for execution of a will had been satisfied.  Specifically, in Baxter v. Peters, No. CA 09-594, a dispute arose between the executor of the grandmother's estate and the grandchildren.  The grandmother apparently left nominal gifts of money to the grandchildren and the bulk of her estate to the National Cemetery in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Presumably the grandchildren were hoping for a larger inheritance if the will in question was not deemed to be valid, and in any event a will contest followed.

At trial the probate court heard conflicting testimony on the issue of whether the will was witnessed with the appropriate number of witnesses (the parties did appear to stipulate that the will in question was in fact signed by the grandmother).  Questions had been raised since the attorney who prepared the will had apparently been in the habit of sometimes not calling in all of the witnesses when the will was being signed (the attorney's own son, for example, evidently testified that he practiced law with his father for a few years and that occasionally witnesses would sign wills outside the presence of the testator).  Ultimately however, the trial court concluded that the signing of the will had been proven according to the statutory formalities. 

While the case is not groundbreaking in the sense that it creates a new rule of law, it is nevertheless instructive because it serves as a careful reminder that testators and their attorneys should be extra careful to ensure that all of the prerequisites for signing a will have been followed (e.g., the will should be in writing, actually signed in front of witnesses, and witnesses should also sign in front of the testator and at their request, etc.).  The fact is that circumstances surrounding the signing of wills and trusts can often be suspect, and those who get sloppy about complying with the statutory requirements are proceeding at their peril as---many years later---estate, trust and probate litigation can ensue long after their deaths.