OCTOBER 21, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 40
Suppose you have two children. Your daughter is very capable, very mature, very responsible. Your son has a developmental disability, or a drinking problem, or just problems handling money. What should you do with any inheritance you leave to your son? Put it in a trust? Make your daughter trustee?
Again and again clients tell us that they don’t want to do that. It seems like a lot of fuss, and probably the son whose inheritance goes into a trust will feel injured, like maybe his parents have said they don’t trust him, or don’t value him. Can’t you just leave everything to your daughter, and tell her to be sure to take care of her brother? Won’t that work?
That’s essentially what Howard Kaufman (not his real name) decided to do. By all reports Howard was very strong-willed and domineering. He had a living trust, written in 2002, which divided most of his estate equally between his two daughters. He named his daughters as successor co-trustees.
Howard’s older daughter, Diane, was blind, diabetic and receiving Social Security Disability benefits. His younger daughter, Jackie, was a successful business woman.
In 2009, Howard decided to change his trust’s terms. He called a meeting with Jackie and his long-time girlfriend (Diane was not included); he arranged for a notary to be present. He told the three of them that he had changed his mind, and that he was going to disinherit Diane. He told Jackie that it would be her duty to see that Diane was “taken care of” with the inheritance she was to receive. Then he had the notary prepare amendments to his trust removing Diane as a beneficiary.
When Howard died, Diane was surprised to learn that she had been left out of his estate plan. Nonetheless, she turned to her sister to continue the pattern Howard had set of helping out so that she could live on her Social Security and disability insurance payments. Jackie declined to continue his pattern of gifts; she insisted that her father had left her his estate (of approximately $4 million) to “do with as I will.”
Diane ended up suing her sister. The theory of her lawsuit, though, was unusual. Rather than arguing that the trust change was invalid, or that Jackie had unduly influenced their father, she sued for a breach of contract. Her theory: Jackie had promised to take care of her, and it would take about $2 million over her lifetime to do that. She also claimed that Jackie had taken advantage of both their father (a vulnerable adult) and Diane (a dependent adult).
The jury in Diane’s case found that Jackie had broken her promise, and had taken advantage of Diane. The jury awarded actual damages of $1.4 million, plus punitive damages of $260,000 and attorneys fees of another $700,000. The jury also ruled against Diane with regard to the vulnerable adult claim — it found that Jackie had not taken advantage of their father. Jackie appealed the judgments against her.
The California Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. It ruled that Diane’s lawsuit was not a disguised trust contest, and that it was not inconsistent that they found Jackie had exploited Diane but not their father. One of the main issues: whether Diane was entitled to a jury trial on her claim. The appellate court ruled that she had, and that Jackie’s promise to take care of her sister was an enforceable contract. Kalfin v. Kalfin, October 15, 2013.
What is the lesson to be learned from Howard’s trust case and his daughter’s lawsuit? There are several, but two key ones jump out:
- Disinheriting your child with disabilities and relying on another child to “take care of” them is not a reliable way to handle division of your estate. It might work, but there are real risks — and the cost and family disharmony resulting from litigation is almost certainly worse than what would be involved in simply setting up a trust for te child with a disability.
- Do you have a child with a disability? A complicated estate? Uncommon wishes? Talk to a lawyer. A notary public is not going to be the best choice for drafting your estate plan. The cost of doing it right will be way, way less than the cost of dealing with the aftermath.