As we are in the midst of the holiday season and families all around the world are coming together to enjoy each other's company for a few fun-filled days (or in some cases a couple of miserable hours), it can be a little disheartening to read about (much less write about) another wealth war in the news. However, this one is pretty spicy, has a celebrity aspect to it (Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger were witnesses at the underlying trial), and even has some criminal twists and turns.
Specifically, msnbc.com had an article today which contains one of the more extreme examples of an estate and trust battle. I was vaguely familiar with Brooke Astor, or rather her last name due to her philanthropy, but became much more interested after hearing and reading of the unfortunate last few years of her life in which she was apparently taken advantage of by her only child. Mrs. Astor's third husband, Vincent Astor, was a descendant of John Jacob Astor, whose fortune was accumulated in fur trading and real estate. Mr. Astor was one of the first multimillionaires, and Mrs. Astor ultimately gave away almost $200 million to institutions and was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her generosity. She passed away in 2007 with many more tens of millions in her portfolio.
According to the msnbc.com article, Anthony Marshall, Mrs. Astor's son, apparently led a successful, well-regarded life until one of his own sons, Phillip Marshall, exposed his father's apparent abuse of his mother (Phillip's grandmother) and her wealth in the course of a 2006 civil suit. The stealing of her fortune was evidently so bad that the 85 year old Marshall actually was convicted of crimes a couple of months ago after a 5 month long trial and now faces sentencing next week, along with an estate lawyer who was likewise convicted of shenanigans associated with Mrs. Astor's fortune. The case is rather intriguing given the fact that celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and Al Roker have come to his defense and pleaded for leniency from the sentencing judge. Only time will tell whether he actually receives it, as there were tales told at trial of Papa Marshall engaging in gamesmanship with respect to Mrs. Astor's will so as to benefit him over her favorite charities, stealing her artwork, and giving himself a million dollar raise for his efforts in managing her wealth.
As a lawyer who has previously worked on many white collar criminal defense matters, I speak from some experience in stating that white collar crime is pretty rarely prosecuted. The public seems to be more taken aback by crimes of drugs, sex, and violence, and therefore the politicians and the strapped resources of governmental officials are largely dedicated to prosecuting those types of crimes. White collar crimes are also typically complex, document-intensive, and often go uncovered much less unprosecuted.
The Astor/Marshall case, however, is one instance in which the facts and circumstances can occasionally be so bad that they warrant more than a civil suit and instead the intervention of criminal investigators. I do not know why, for instance, stealing $100,000 from a relative by altering some documents is any less of a prosecutable crime than stealing a carton of cigarettes from a convenience store, but for some reason it seems like the latter is much more likely to receive the attention of the law enforcement authorities. In any event, the Astor/Marshall case contains lessons for lawyers and wealthy individuals alike in ensuring that the estate planning and trust administration processes are as free of hanky-panky as possible.
UPDATED: According to msnbc.com, Phillip Marshall was sentenced to 1-3 years in prison, although he may be able to stay out of prison on bail pending appeal. According to the New York Times, Mr. Marshall's lawyer apparently received the same sentence.