Falsely Accused of Elder Abuse: Keystone Proves Decedent Lacked Capacity to Execute New Trust, Securing Disinherited Clients Their Rightful Inheritances
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There are certain red flags that can call the validity of a decedent’s will or trust into question. For example, if a will or trust is executed mere days before a decedent’s death and strips the beneficiaries under the decedent’s previous estate planning documents of their inheritances, it would not be stretch to believe the document may have been obtained through unethical means. Perhaps someone close to the decedent unduly influenced the decedent or committed another form of elder abuse against them to compel them to make these changes to their estate plan.
In this case, the estranged son of the decedent reemerged in the decedent’s life six months before she died to try to get himself named as the sole beneficiary of the decedent’s trust by bringing false allegations of elder abuse against Keystone’s clients — the decedent’s grandchildren — in an effort to have them disinherited. By claiming the decedent was unable to care for herself or protect herself against physical and financial abuse at the hands of her grandchildren, who had been the primary beneficiaries of her original trust, he was able to obtain a temporary conservatorship, and later a permanent conservatorship, over the decedent’s person and estate.
These actions set in motion a devastating turn of events that resulted in the estranged son taking the decedent to an estate planning attorney to execute a new trust in which he was named as the sole beneficiary. The decedent would die soon after.
When Keystone’s clients learned that their grandmother, who had practically raised them, completely cut them out of her new trust, they knew something was not right and turned to Keystone’s trust and will dispute attorneys for help.
Because of their old age and/or declining competence, elderly and dependent adults are prime targets for abuse. Luckily, laws have been put into place to protect these vulnerable members of society. Regardless of the nature of the alleged abuse, when such charges are levied against someone — including against loved ones of the victim — the court takes them seriously. But, what happens when one or more people are wrongfully accused of financial elder abuse? The consequences can be dire for the alleged abusers if a qualified lawyer is not retained to defend them.
“A finding of financial elder abuse in the context of a probate action can have serious consequences,” says Joshua D. Taylor, a partner at Keystone who supervised the case. “For example, the court can issue an order prohibiting the abuser from inheriting from the decedent; the court can make the abuser pay the other party’s attorney’s fees; and/or the court can make the abuser pay enhanced damages.”
A Closer Look Into Why the Decedent’s New Trust Was Invalid
Keystone’s clients had practically been raised by the decedent following the death of their father, but once the decedent had entered old age, it was they who were caring for the decedent and tending to her needs. They were so close with the decedent that she had named them the primary beneficiaries of her trust, despite having another son.
This son, who had been estranged, saw an opportunity to secure himself a greater inheritance from the decedent’s trust by falsifying claims of elder abuse against Keystone’s clients and using those claims to petition for a conservatorship over the decedent. The son raised enough concern about his mother’s inability to care for herself and protect herself from the alleged abuse of her grandchildren for the court to grant him the type of conservatorship he’d requested.
For reference, conservators are persons who have been granted the legal authority to manage the financial affairs and/or daily life of a person who is unable to handle these things on their own due to advanced age or physical or mental limitations. As a fiduciary, it is their duty to act in the best interest of the person they are protecting at all times; sadly, there is no guarantee that they won’t engage in fiduciary misconduct, as demonstrated by this case.
Just weeks after the son was granted a temporary conservatorship over his mother, he hired an estate planning attorney to execute a new trust for the decedent, which voided the trust the decedent had executed three years prior that left just a fraction of her trust estate to her estranged son and the majority of it to her other son. Since the latter son had died, his portion of the trust was to pass to his children, Keystone’s clients. The new trust, however, stripped Keystone’s clients of their inheritances because it named the estranged son as its sole beneficiary.
An investigation by adult protective services found the elder abuse accusations levied against Keystone’s clients to be unsupported. Testimony from the decedent’s court-appointed attorney in the conservatorship action also confirmed that Keystone’s clients had done nothing wrong. What wasn’t in dispute, however, was that the decedent’s mental capacity had been failing — which is why the proposed conservatorship was granted.
What is unusual about this case is the fact the decedent was permitted to execute a new trust while being under a conservatorship without first obtaining an opinion about her competence. To be placed under a conservatorship, the proposed subject of the conservatorship would have to be found to lack the capacity to resist fraud and undue influence, or to make important personal and/or financial decisions on their own. And since a requirement for anyone executing a will or trust is that they are competent and free of undue influence, it is logical to assume the decedent lacked the requisite contractual capacity — one of the highest forms of capacity — to execute a new trust.
However, the estate planning attorney who drafted the decedent’s new trust was both inexperienced in estate planning and was not given this information when he prepared the trust. Instead, once the new trust was drawn up, he went to the decedent’s hospital room, where she was receiving palliative care, to get her signature on the purported document. She died three days later.
“It is unusual and highly suspect and should have set off red flags with the estate planning attorney,” Taylor says. “One of our arguments in the trust litigation was that because the decedent was under a conservatorship at the time the new trust was signed, that, by itself, should cause the new trust to be invalidated.”
In the end, Keystone successfully defended its clients against the claims of elder abuse, which cleared the way for the clients to receive the majority of the decedent’s assets when the case settled at mediation. At mediation, Keystone argued that the new trust was invalid on account of the decedent having signed it from her deathbed while under a conservatorship, which suggests that the decedent had lacked the capacity to make such a sweeping change of her estate plan.