Managing Someone Else's Money

 Estate, trust, power of attorney and probate disputes often develop due to disagreements over the manner in which someone managed another person's money. For example, the beneficiaries of a will might disagree with the executor's claim for fees related to administration of an estate.  Co-trustees might differ as to the best investments for maximizing the income and assets of a trust.  Two children might question the propriety of their third sibling's withdrawals of money from their mother's bank account, pursuant to a financial power of attorney that the mother apparently executed at some point in the past.

 To provide guidance in these situations, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recently released 4 booklets entitled "Managing Someone Else's Money" which are intended for such persons as trustees, agents under powers of attorney, court-appointed guardians, and government fiduciaries.  Not only do they assist those who are honestly and legitimately attempting to assist in the management of money or property for a loved one, they also provide information on warning signs and things to look for when someone else is doing the managing of that person's finances.

 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.

Apparent End To The Huguette Clark $300 Million Estate Battle

In a middle-of-the-night deal during jury selection of a New York trial, it appears that a settlement has been reached in the infamous Huguette Clark estate dispute.  You can read all about it at this link.  I had written about this over 3 years ago back in August 2010 at this link.  This litigation serves as a very interesting case study in undue influence allegations and other issues commonly associated with estate and trust disputes.  A more comprehensive overview of the stories, videos, and other coverage of this saga can be found at this link.          

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.

Arkansas Court Of Appeals Affirms Agreement To Split Joint Accounts Despite Beneficiary Designations

 There is often confusion regarding what property falls within an estate, or trust, and what property falls outside of either.  For example, commonly bank accounts, IRA’s, etc., are titled in such a way that upon one person’s death, the remaining monies are left to the other person or person(s) identified on the account paperwork such that this property passes outside the estate or trust.  It can often be a difficult task to demonstrate that this money should be divided in a different manner.

 However, the Arkansas Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s ruling that this was what was supposed to occur, in the case of Richardson v. Brown, 2012 Ark. App. 535 (September 26, 2012) stemming from Faulkner County Circuit Court.  This was actually a case that I handled on behalf of a client, and the Judge ruled in his favor.  The ruling was left wholly intact by the appellate court.

Without going into too much detail, the parties' mother passed away leaving three children as her heirs.  Certain property passed to the children pursuant to a will, but the mother had other property (a car, bank accounts, IRA, etc.) that were titled in various ways as between her and her individual children.  Our client argued that despite the titling on the various property, the three children had in fact an oral agreement, as demonstrated by the later actions and conduct of the children, to split all of the properties evenly.  He had received the “short end of the stick” and, basically, believed that his sisters had intentionally deprived him of his equal one-third share.

 In a hard fought battle, our client ultimately prevailed at trial and proved that, notwithstanding the titling on the various properties, there was an express agreement among the siblings to equally divide the various accounts.  The trial court imposed a judgment and a substantial attorneys’ fee award, both of which were affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

 In doing so, among other things the Court ruled that ordinarily ownership of a joint bank account with a right of survivorship is conclusive proof of the parties’ intent for the property to pass to the survivor.  However, this general rule does not prevent the survivor from making a different disposition by agreement, and in this case the trial court determined that such an agreement had in fact been made among the siblings.  This is a difficult argument to make, because courts presume that the titling on an account is strong evidence of how that property is to be distributed.  But, if the facts and evidence warrant it, this case demonstrates that a court will sometimes hold that an agreement to divide the property otherwise will prevail over the titling of an account.

 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.

"Murder, Fraud, $2.2 Million Somewhere"

This week's issue of the Arkansas Times  contains a sad but fascinating story written by Mara Leveritt, who is well-known for her writing about so-called "true crime," including but not limited to her book about the West Memphis Three, Devil's Knot.  Specifically, Ms. Leveritt tells the tale of an older gentleman living in Washington state whose trust assets were swindled by a love interest with Arkansas ties, and how the gentleman's son has relentlessly pursued bringing the woman to justice and recovering the monies in question.  The story also contains a link to the family's own website detailing the ordeal, the criminal case, and the civil lawsuits stemming from the fraud.  Interesting reading. 

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.

Common Mistakes When Serving As Trustee

My last post discussed the pros and cons of institutional trustees vs. family member trustees.  Regardless of whom is serving as trustee, in the course of my law practice there are common themes which repeatedly arise in the area of trust disputes and litigation.  Specifically, it is easy for trustees---especially inexperienced family member trustees---to make mistakes when administering a trust.  Some of these were nicely summarized in a recent article, published in Barron's Penta, entitled "The Five Biggest Ways To Bungle A Trust." 

(1) Not Keeping Good Trust Records---The Arkansas Trust Code, and presumably trust laws in most if not all other states, contain requirements mandating that trustees provide beneficiaries with accountings of trust assets, income, expenditures, etc.  The timing and extent of those accountings can vary based upon certain factors, including whether one is an income beneficiary or a remainder beneficiary.  However, at all times the trustee is to act in the interest of the beneficiaries, which includes maintaining comprehensive and accurate records.  Trustees who do not keep such records act at their own peril, as gaps and inaccuracies in documentation (even if purely innocent) can create an aura of suspicion and sometimes later liability for breach of trust, breach of fiduciary duty, etc. 

(2) Not Diversifying Trust Investments---Another duty which too often goes unfulfilled is the trustee's obligation to properly diversify trust investments.  Just because the trustee might handle their own investment portfolio in a certain manner does not mean that the investments are being properly handled with regard to the beneficiaries of the trust.  For example, if the beneficiary is an elderly person in need of income, having the trust's assets invested in 100% tech stocks is not likely to be deemed a wise investment strategy.  Arkansas has a Prudent Investor Act which must be reviewed and followed, and it is based upon a well-recognized uniform act that is utilized in many other jurisdictions as well. 

(3) Not Distributing Trust Assets Fairly---A trustee owes a fiduciary duty to current beneficiaries, as well as to remainder beneficiaries.  Sometimes this can create problems when a duty to one conflicts with a duty to another.  Also, sometimes in the case of family member trustees, the trustee is herself a beneficiary (e.g., perhaps the father named his daughter as trustee of his trust after his death, but also named her as a beneficiary like his two sons/her two brothers).  Especially when no trustee fee is involved (see below), we have seen cases in which the trustee is tempted to take extra distributions, etc. as purported justification for being saddled with the extra time and work associated with acting as trustee.  This can be dangerous as it can constitute an actual impropriety, or at least suggest an appearance of impropriety.  It is therefore wise to maintain clear and well-documented records of all distribution decisions.

(4) Not Properly Handling The Trustee Fee---The fact is that administering a trust can involve a lot of work.  It can be very profitable, which is precisely why institutional trustees exist.  Families often do not want to see their assets being consumed in part by the fees of an institutional trustee (notwithstanding some of the advantages to using one), and so often a family member is named as trustee.  The family member, however, might have a time-consuming occupation and/or an active family life.  Adding the trustee duties on top of an already-busy schedule can naturally trigger a desire for some sort of compensation associated with the extra work.  Whatever the trustee fee arrangement is (assuming trustee fees are paid at all), similar to asset distributions discussed above it is wise for there to be a well-documented record of how trustee fees will be paid, when they will be paid, and how they will be calculated.

(5) Not Watching Your Back---A trusteeship has been viewed as involving the highest duty owed another under the law.  It entails a tremendous amount of responsibility, and should not be lightly regarded.  Individuals named as trustee in a trust instrument often view it as an honor, which is fine so long as the trustee treats it as such.  However, money has an uncanny way of sometimes causing people---including trustees and beneficiaries---to engage in actions and behavior which they (and others) perhaps never previously conceived.  Occasionally this will result in nasty disputes between trustees and beneficiaries which can ultimately erupt into actual litigation.  A trustee might innocently take on that "oath of office," so to speak, never imagining that they might someday be mired in stressful, expensive disagreements with once-close friends or family members.  On that note, typically the trustee's dispute is not with the person who named them as trustee (i.e., in a revocable trust situation the grantor of the trust can simply remove or change the trustee)---instead, the fight will frequently be with the children or grandchildren of the grantor. 

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.

Family Member Trustees vs. Institutional Trustees

When a trust is formed, one of the many decisions that must be made by the "settlor" (the one who forms the trust) is who will serve as trustee.  The settlor may also select multiple trustees ("co-trustees," who serve with each other) and later ("successor") trustees (who may serve after the original trustee can no longer serve [death, disability, etc.] or for some other reason [resignation, removal, etc. of the original trustee]. 

The selection of trustee is an important one because they have a fiduciary obligation to carry out the terms of the trust and the desires of the settlor.  Because the trustee exercises great power and discretion over money and property, the pros and cons of family member trustees vs institutional trustees should be considered.  Trust disputes often relate back to whom, and how, was selected to serve as trustee.  

FAMILY MEMBER TRUSTEES
Family members such as spouses and children are frequently named as trustees, but this selection occasionally results in trouble down the road due to sibling rivalries and the trustee's lack of knowledge and experience.

Advantages of family member trustees include a familiarity with the beneficiaries, and possibly the trust property as well; and a common willingness to serve with little or no compensation.

Disadvantages of family member trustees include an inability or disinclination to carry out the duties of a trustee; favoritism or unfairness toward certain beneficiaries; the need for a successor trustee at the resignation, incapacity, or death of the trustee; the lack of insurance coverage in case of liability; and tax consequences if the trustee is also a beneficiary.

INSTITUTIONAL TRUSTEES
Institutional trustees include such entities as banks and trust companies, which have their pros and cons as well.

Advantages of institutional trustees include expertise and competence at carrying out trustee duties, such as adherence to the prudent investor rule; impartiality with regard to trust property and beneficiaries; avoidance of the problem of successor trustees; the possibility of additional services such as tax reporting or money management; and sufficient insurance coverage in case of liability.

Disadvantages of institutional trustees include greater administrative costs; a lack of familiarity with the beneficiaries ; and an inability to administer certain types of trust property, such as real estate. 

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.

Random Odds And Ends

A couple of quick things before I head off to celebrate the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011:

(1) The Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog contained an interesting quote today from the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire, who lived about 300 years ago, which goes to show that the subject matter discussed in my own Blog is hardly new or novel:

"Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills."

---Voltaire, French author (1694 - 1778)

(2) A recent article cites a study by the Center For Retirement Research at Boston College for the proposition that Baby Boomers, who apparently have already inherited $2.4 trillion from older generations, are in line to inherit at least $8.4 trillion more.  In fact, according to a December 27, 2010 Associated Press article, starting in January more than 10,000 Baby Boomers a day will turn 65,  a trend that will continue for the next 19 years.  Given those numbers, one can only assume that the number of inheritance-related disputes will continue to rise as well.  

Best wishes for a Happy New Year!

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.

Recent Articles On Alzheimer's Disease, And Trustee/Beneficiary Relationships

There is not much to this post, primarily because the articles referenced below already thoroughly discuss the issues.  Specifically, both articles shed light upon two common problem areas which can often eventually erupt into estate, trust and probate disputes. 

The first article is from the New York Times and addresses the effect of Alzheimer's Disease and dementia upon an individual's ability to control and account for their finances.  Given our aging population and ever-increasing life expectancy, it's recommended reading for everyone as this concern affects innumerable families in this country. 

The second article is from the Wall Street Journal and touches upon the often-tense relationship between trustees and beneficiaries.   It may especially be interesting and insightful for anyone who already acts as trustee or who may eventually act as a trustee in the future.

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.

Mediation As An Alternative To Inheritance Litigation

Lawsuits are not the only way to resolve disputes, and arguably are not even the best way.  Litigation can be financially expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally tolling.  Especially in the context of estate, trust and probate litigation, the disputes often involve persons who know each other, including relatives, friends, and business associates.  Accordingly, in addition to the expenditure of money, time and emotions, litigation can sometimes involve harm to the relationships between the litigants. 

Because of the foregoing concerns, different types of alternative dispute resolution have been developed over the years.  One of these methods, in particular, is conducive to the issues arising in inheritance-related disputes.  Specifically, mediation generally involves a third party called a "mediator" who is specially trained to attempt to bring the adverse parties to a compromise and settle their differences.  Unlike the judge or jury, or an arbitrator, a mediator does not resolve the dispute for the parties but instead aims to facilitate a final resolution that the parties reach on their own.  There are many such mediators in Arkansas (e.g., Hamlin Dispute Resolution, ADR, Inc., etc.), and we have successfully used them in the past on behalf of our own clients.  A good article in the New York Times this weekend also discusses mediation in the elder law context. 

A simple fact is that the death of a loved one is already a stressful experience.  If, for example, that person's estate is perceived to not have been distributed in the manner in which that decedent intended (or perhaps in a way in which a would-be recipient originally anticipated it), long-simmering feuds can rise to the surface and minor misunderstandings can erupt into major conflicts.  Occasionally it's too late, but the relationships of the persons involved can frequently be maintained, and their disputes ultimately resolved,  by mediation.  Drawn-out court battles can be avoided or at least minimized, and the money and property in dispute can be preserved instead of exhausted on the litigation process.  Mediation is confidential as opposed to occurring in the public eye, can be scheduled by the parties at their convenience rather than subject to the limited openings in a Court's docket, and takes place in a neutral conference room rather than in an often-intimidating courtroom. 

Not every dispute is ideal or appropriate for mediation, but it can and should be considered as an alternative method of dispute resolution.  

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.

Frank Talk On Attorney's Fees

One of the first questions that a potential inheritance litigation client quite reasonably asks is some form of the following question: “How much is this ultimately going to cost me?”  While there is unfortunately little or no way of determining on the front end how much a legal matter might cost, how that cost will be calculated generally is capable of early determination.  There are typically three primary ways in which an attorney charges for his or her services, and of course occasionally a couple of these methods can be combined together to create a “mixed” fee arrangement.

1.  HOURLY FEE

As Abraham Lincoln famously said, "A lawyer's time and advice are his stock in trade."  Accordingly, the most common fee arrangement is based upon an hourly fee, i.e., the lawyer charges an hourly rate for their time and the ultimate fee is determined upon how much time the lawyer has to spend on the representation.  For example, if I was retained by the trustee of a trust to defend against claims brought by a beneficiary of the trust, I would charge the trustee an hourly fee and the ultimate bill would be determined upon how much time I had to spend working on the trustee’s case.  The same goes for a beneficiary pursuing claims against the trustee.

Obviously, the more time-consuming the case the more expensive the representation (and vice versa).  Hourly rates in Arkansas are by and large considerably lower than in other, more populated and wealthier areas of the country, especially the East and West Coasts.  There are a number of factors which determine the hourly rate, including but not limited to the complexity of the area of law, the attorney’s experience and reputation, the attorney's location, etc.

2.  CONTINGENCY FEE

A second, but less common, fee arrangement in inheritance disputes (and other litigation for that matter) is a “contingency fee.”  This is an arrangement which is necessarily only used by the person bringing the lawsuit, as opposed to the person defending the action.  Specifically, the lawyer and the client agree that the lawyer will accept a percentage of whatever amount is recovered (if anything) as the lawyer’s fee for the representation.  A common percentage is anywhere from 25-50%, and rarely will the percentage stray outside of that range.  Usually the lawyer and the client will come to an agreement on the front end regarding who will pay for the various costs (filing fees, deposition expenses, copies, postage, etc.) and sometimes the lawyer will advance those expenses and then take them “off the top” in the event of any recovery.

As one can tell, under this arrangement the more favorable the recovery, the higher the lawyer’s fee.  However, there is also added risk for the attorney because if there is little or no recovery, or if the client prevails but the judgment is uncollectible as a practical matter (the defendant has no money, etc.), then the lawyer loses just like the client.  Given the fact that litigation can often take years, essentially the attorney is working for free for a long period of time before recouping out-of-pocket expenses much less any fee for the work performed.

This type of arrangement can be beneficial in situations wherein an individual might not be able to afford an hourly arrangement.  Again, the potential downside is that, unlike a rear-end collision wherein liability in a personal injury case might be very clear, liability in estate, trust, or probate litigation can often be quite unclear and unpredictable.  Therefore, in cases where liability is unclear or in cases in which the defendant could potentially have counterclaims against the plaintiff, contingency fee arrangements will probably not be the ideal arrangement.  Occasionally, a lawyer will be willing to combine a lower hourly fee (perhaps charging 2/3 of their regular hourly rate) with a lower-than-usual contingency percentage (perhaps 25% instead of 33% or more), therefore creating a mixed hourly/contingency fee arrangement.

 3.  FLAT FEE

Finally, the third and least common type of fee arrangement is simply a “flat fee” paid for a certain amount of services.  In other words, the lawyer and the client agree that a certain type of service or a certain number of actions will be taken by the lawyer to represent the client (drafting a certain amount of letters, preparing an agreement, etc.).  For that finite amount of services the lawyer and client agree on a specific fee.  This gives both the lawyer and the client a greater degree of predictability, but it is an often impractical arrangement in estate, trust and probate disputes because litigation is unpredictable and can rarely be reduced to only a certain number of actions.  However, in certain situations it can be used effectively and should not automatically be discarded.

In conclusion, the best fee arrangement in a particular situation will necessarily depend upon the facts and circumstances.  While the free market has resulted in lawyers no doubt being expensive, when it comes to the amounts of money and high stakes involved in inheritance litigation, many times the lawyer’s fee can be a mere drop in the bucket.  For example, if a plaintiff potentially goes without recovering some or all of a large inheritance that they were otherwise supposed to receive, then hiring an attorney can even be construed as a wise investment.  Likewise, if a trustee could potentially be removed from her office or is wrongfully accused of harming the trust and causing substantial damages, hiring representation is a necessity rather than a luxury (incidentally, sometimes trustees' attorney fees can be paid out a trust or reimbursed by a trust).  In certain situations (breach of contract, breach of trust, etc.) the prevailing party also may be able to recover some or all of their attorney’s fees expended.  In essence, every situation is different and unfortunately there are simply no guarantees when it comes to the outcome of a legal matter nor the attorney fees necessary to handle that legal matter.

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.