OCTOBER 11, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 32
Imagine this: you have a long-standing history of philanthropy and community involvement. You have substantial assets and you feel that you should use some of them to enrich the community where you live, where you made your fortune, and where your children were raised. Your spouse agrees with you about these goals, and the two of you want to make sure someone has the power to continue to pursue those goals even if you become incapacitated. You should both sign a power of attorney, and name as agent someone who you know agrees with your world view, right?
That is what Irwin and Xenia Miller, of Columbus, Indiana, did. In 1995 they signed mirror-image powers of attorney naming one another as agent. They both named one of their five children and a long-time financial adviser as co-agents to act if either could not act for the other. Then they went about living their lives.
To make their intentions clear, Irwin Miller wrote a letter to the couple’s children in 1996. “Of all the things we can ‘leave to you,'” he wrote, “money seems to us to be the least important.” He went on to tell the children that he and Xenia “have not lived and worked primarily to maximize your inheritance.” “We have worked and lived to make a constructive contribution to our community, church, and nation. And — we have lived our own lives the way we wanted to live them, and have had a good time so doing.”
For nearly a decade after signing their powers of attorney and writing to the children, Irwin Miller spent significant sums on maintaining several homes in Indiana and Ontario, Canada. In fact, the upkeep costs on three properties were in the millions of dollars during this time period. Irwin made those expenditures despite the fact that he and Xenia didn’t actually own one of the properties — it had been purchased by the son they named as agent in their power of attorney.
When Irwin Miller died in 2004, Xenia Miller was already incapacitated. The two agents in her 1995 power of attorney began to handle her finances, as she had planned. They faced a quandary: should they continue to pay significant sums to maintain properties even though the payments would not benefit Xenia Miller’s estate? Even though she might not be able to enjoy visiting two of the properties any more? Even though the expenditures might actually benefit one of the agents?
Xenia Miller died in 2008. During the four years between Irwin’s and Xenia’s death, the agents under the power of attorney spent over $20 million on keeping the properties going, making improvements and (in the case of the family home) arranging to interest the Indianapolis Museum of Art in moving into the property. Concerned that the expenditures might be challenged, they ultimately filed a petition with the local probate court seeking approval of their expenditures.
One of Irwin and Xenia’s children objected, and a four-day hearing was held on the accounting filed by the agents. Among his allegations: because the agents were acting under a power of attorney, their behavior created a presumption of undue influence requiring that the payments be set aside. The probate judge listened to testimony and arguments from both sides and then approved all the transactions. The judge also ordered the objecting son to pay the legal fees incurred by the agents.
The Indiana Court of Appeals reviewed the holding and agreed that “Xenia and Irwin Miller were extraordinary individuals who did everything in their power to enrich their community, support their family, and better society as a whole.” The appellate judges upheld the probate court approval of the expenditures; they did, however, rule that the contest was not frivolous and so reversed the award of attorneys fees. In Re General Power of Attorney of Miller, September 30, 2010.
The Millers left an extraordinary legacy — on many levels. They provided for their five children. They enriched their community. They created a lasting memory of a wealthy and public-spirited family. Though they probably did not intend to leave a legal precedent that could guide others, they did. By writing what amounted to an “ethical will,” setting out not just financial inheritances but also principles he lived by and hoped would guide his children, Irwin Miller gave us another legacy: he taught us that a power of attorney can be used to carry out the intentions of the signer, even if his purposes are not solely financial.
The Court of Appeals opinion is worth reading, if only for the language of Irwin Miller’s letter to his children. For more on the extraordinary Millers, consider the Christie’s auction notice describing sale of their collection and their impact on the architecture and art communities. Xenia Miller was an extraordinary individual in her own right, with business, art, religious and civil rights credentials that earned her recognition and acclaim.