FEBRUARY 6, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 5
What can a parent do to ensure continuing care for his or her adult child with a disability? That was the dilemma facing Californian Earl Blacksher in the late 1980s. His daughter Ida McQueen lived with him in the family home in Oakland. She was developmentally disabled, and she received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments; she had no other resources and Mr. Blacksher’s own assets were largely limited to the home.
Mr. Blacksher signed a will. He directed that Ms. McQueen be allowed to live in the house for the rest of her life, and that the rest of his small estate be placed in trust to help her pay for the care and services that would be required to let her stay at home. He left his two brothers in charge of the estate and the testamentary trust he created.
After the brothers restructured the mortgage on the house, Ms. McQueen could live there on her SSI payments — just barely. When she became ill a decade later she moved temporarily to a nursing facility. With no resources to help pay for in-home care, and with escalating needs, she could not return to the home.
The attorney who had handled the probate in the first place had never been paid, since there was not enough money to take care of her bill. Neither had the brothers been paid for their work in handling the estate. Nor had the real property taxes on the home been kept current. It appeared that there was no choice but to sell the house, pay bills, and distribute any proceeds. The attorney assisted the trustee in listing and selling the house.
After all the bills were caught up there was $90,000 left to distribute. The attorney, apparently reasoning that Ms. McQueen had effectively abandoned her life estate interest in the home by failing to pay taxes and keep payments current, decided that nothing needed to be retained in Mr. Blacksher’s trust, and she arranged distribution of the proceeds to the remaining family members.
Almost immediately a conservatorship was begun to investigate the transaction, and a lawsuit was filed against several family members and the attorney who had arranged the sale and distribution. The lawsuit argued that the net proceeds should have been retained in trust for the benefit of Ms. McQueen. In response, the defendants insisted that it was reasonable to treat Ms. McQueen’s right to use of the house (or proceeds from its sale) as terminated, and that in any event any money she would have received would have simply interrupted her eligibility to receive SSI payments and subsidized care from California’s Medicaid program.
At trial two attorneys testified about the possibility of treating Mr. Blacksher’s trust as a “special needs” trust, which might have allowed Ms. McQueen to have the benefit of the sale proceeds without losing her eligibility for SSI and Medicaid. One expert opined that the option should have been discussed; the other pointed out that Mr. Blacksher’s trust did not qualify as written, and that California law would not have permitted a revision. Ultimately, however, the language of Mr. Blacksher’s testamentary trust was irrelevant — the trial judge precluded testimony about SSI benefits, and the jury found that most of the defendants had participated in taking money from Ms. McQueen. They were ordered to return $99,900 to Ms. McQueen.
One defendant — the attorney — was singled out by the jury for additional penalties. She was the only one the jury found liable for elder abuse, a separate claim under California law (and, incidentally, under the law of Arizona and most, if not all, other states). That did not directly increase the jury’s award against her, but it did have a significant additional effect. California law permits an award of attorneys fees against a party found liable for elder abuse. The attorney was ordered to pay Ms. McQueen’s lawyer’s fees, which totaled another $320,748.25.
The California Court of Appeal considered several arguments but ultimately upheld the judgment, including the effectively quadrupled award against the attorney. Key to the appellate court’s ruling was a finding that it was irrelevant whether Ms. McQueen received SSI or Medicaid benefits, or whether she would have lost those benefits if the terms of her father’s trust had been carried out as written. The judges were also unimpressed by an argument that the attorney acted reasonably in deciding, albeit wrongly, that failure to pay taxes or upkeep on the house effectively ended Ms. McQueen’s interest in the trust. McQueen v. Drumgoole, January 14, 2011.
The litigation involving Mr. Blacksher’s testamentary trust proves what every parent of a child with disabilities already knows: it can be very difficult to come up with a plan that adequately protects your child after your death. Mr. Blacksher’s trust may have been inadequate to the task, but it may be that the basic inadequacy was in the plan itself — there does not seem to have been enough money available to let Ms. McQueen stay in the family home after his death.
What might Mr. Blacksher have done differently? It is hard to be certain on the sparse record in the Court of Appeal, but there are a number of planning questions we might have asked Mr. Blacksher if we had a chance to speak with him before he signed his will, including:
- Does the testamentary trust language in your will adequately protect your daughter’s interest in the family home if it has to be sold? It appears that Mr. Blacksher’s will may not have done so — the trust he established may not have been a “special needs” trust.
- Do you have a realistic plan about how your daughter’s care can be provided? It appears from the outcome that there were not sufficient assets available to provide in-home care, even if health problems had not intervened to send Ms. McQueen to a care facility.
- If a move from the home is inevitable after your death, have you given adequate consideration to alternatives now? Might it be best to look into transitioning your daughter into a suitable placement while you are still able to participate in the selection and oversight of the care home?
- How involved — both in terms of time and in financial and other support — will the rest of the family be in caring for your daughter? Most parents recognize the high personal cost of providing full-time care. Did Mr. Blacksher’s family members realize that they would need to provide some of that care after he was unavailable, or did they realize it but lack the resources to do what he had done for years?
For lawyers, the key messages from the McQueen v. Drumgoole case are probably:
- The “collateral source” rule, which prevents jury consideration of other payments available to the plaintiff in most civil lawsuits, applies in a case like this to prevent discussion of the SSI and Medicaid benefits a plaintiff might be entitled to receive — even if a successful verdict might eliminate those benefits.
- The attorneys fees generated in complex litigation might all be chargeable against an unsuccessful defendant, even if not all of the claims (and all of the defendants) are found liable for any attorneys fee award.
For family members, though, the takeaway message is simpler:
- Failure to plan realistically for your child’s care may result in a failed care plan.