Posts Tagged ‘Arizona law’

Reporting Abuse, Neglect or Exploitation of Vulnerable Adults

DECEMBER 23, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 48

As people live longer and the elderly population increases, so does the likelihood of abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable adults. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, nurses, caretakers, bankers — indeed, any professional — faces a growing probability that at some point they will be confronted with the issue of whether to report suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation. For lawyers, especially, the ethical requirement that client confidences be maintained can complicate the problem.

There were over 1,600 allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable adults reported in Pima County, Arizona (the Tucson area) last year. Surprisingly, fewer than 1% of these were reported by legal professionals. Arizona law imposes an affirmative duty on attorneys to report suspected exploitation of a vulnerable adult to the authorities. Arizona Revised Statutes § 46-454(b) requires any attorney who is responsible for preparing the tax records of a vulnerable adult, or responsible for any “action concerning the use or preservation of the vulnerable adult’s property and who, in the course of fulfilling that responsibility, discovers a reasonable basis to believe that exploitation of the adult’s property has occurred or that abuse or neglect of the adult has occurred shall immediately report or cause reports to be made …”

Keep in mind that an individual does not have to be “elderly” to be a vulnerable adult. Any adult who is unable to protect himself or herself from abuse, neglect or exploitation by others because of a physical or mental impairment is a vulnerable adult. The definition of vulnerable adult is broad and so are the types of abuse and exploitation that the statute is intended to cover. Financial exploitation of vulnerable adults occurs with alarming frequency and in many cases goes unreported because the victim may not be aware of the ways in which he or she is being exploited.

Reports of suspected abuse can be made to the City Police, County Sheriff or (statewide) Adult Protective Services. The Pima County Public Fiduciary also handles cases of suspected financial exploitation. Even if suspected abuse is later found to be unsubstantiated, there are no penalties for good faith reporting. Any attorney who makes a report in good faith is likely to have some civil and/or criminal immunity from liability. You can make a report anonymously, however, the law requires that the report be made immediately, otherwise you may be found guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.

So, you may be reading this and thinking: “how can I uphold my duty of confidentiality to my client if I suspect that he or she may be a victim of abuse, neglect or exploitation?” How is it possible to balance this ethical duty when reporting of suspected abuse is mandatory? In Arizona, you will not breach your duty of confidentiality if you reveal only information to the extent you believe is necessary to comply with a law that requires the disclosure of such information.

Arizona’s version of the ethical rules governing lawyers provides specific guidance to attorneys in cases where an attorney believes that his or her client of diminished capacity is at “risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest.” In these specific cases, an attorney may take “reasonably necessary protective action,” including consulting with individuals or entities who may be able to protect a client with diminished capacity.  In taking any protective action, among other considerations, an attorney may be guided by the client’s best interests or the wishes and values of the client.

Pima County (and Arizona) is home to a growing number of seniors and vulnerable adults. As we consider the ways our practices can build a healthy community, we must remember the duty of advocacy we owe our clients. If you suspect a case of abuse is occurring and feel unsure about your duty to report, then reach out to one of our colleagues who specialize in professional responsibility or call the Arizona State Bar Ethics Hotline.

What about lawyers practicing in other jurisdictions? State laws vary — many states have mandatory reporting requirements but quite a few of them either do not extend to, or specifically exempt, lawyers from coverage. The ethical rules permitting disclosure when the client is at risk, however, have been adopted in substantially similar form in almost every state.

What about other professionals? Arizona’s mandatory reporting law is very clear: doctors and other medical providers are covered as to reporting abuse, neglect and exploitation, and accountants and tax preparers are covered as to reporting exploitation. Other states vary, with some focusing on medical providers and others on social workers and government officials. If you work with seniors and/or adults with diminished capacity, you should check into your state laws regarding mandatory reporting of abuse, neglect and/or exploitation.

We Suggest Two Positive Things About Probate — But Not Too Vigorously

SEPTEMBER 24, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 36
Two weeks ago we wrote about why you might want to plan your estate with an eye toward avoiding probate. We hope you concluded, with us, that the probate process may not be as onerous as one would believe based on its bad reputation. We concluded with a promise that we would next try to identify any reason you might actually want to be sure that your estate “goes through” probate.

Then life (in the form of a family visit and a trip to the fantastic ruins at Chaco Culture National Historic Park) intervened, and we missed getting back to you on this topic. We do hope no readers are inconvenienced by what we are sure was growing dramatic tension.

We’re back and ready to address the positives about probate. “It isn’t as bad as you think” simply is not enough to recommend the probate process, and so we need to lay out all the affirmatively good things that can happen by virtue of having your (or a family member’s) estate subjected to probate. We think we will be brief.

We can think of two positive things arising from the probate process. Others might quibble (and in fact we hope they do — comments are solicited below) and insist that we have overlooked a third, or even a fourth. But the truth is that there are not many affirmatively good things flowing from a probate proceeding. Here are our two:

1. Creditor protection. If your estate goes through the probate process, there is a formal mechanism for giving notice to creditors and giving them a short time — in Arizona, four months — in which to perfect their claims. At least in theory (there are some exceptions) that means you can cut off unknown creditors fairly quickly after a death, and their claims do not linger to be asserted against heirs months or even years later. This feature of probate is often particularly attractive to doctors, lawyers, architects — any professional who might conceivably be sued for malpractice.

This “benefit” is often illusory, however. In Arizona, and in a growing number of other states, you can give creditors notice (by a combination of mailing and publishing in local newspapers) and cut off claims not made within the same four-month period even if no probate has been filed. Check with your local attorney to see if your state has a similar provision.

2. Judicial finality. What we mean by this is that, particularly in contentious family situations, the person administering your estate might actually benefit from the knowledge that once a probate judge has decreed that everything was done correctly, unhappy heirs are cut off from pursuing additional legal proceedings.

This, too, is somewhat illusory. Suppose you choose to establish a living trust to avoid the probate process, and your successor trustee wishes she had access to the courts to make sure her siblings don’t threaten to act for months or years after your estate has been settled. Well, your successor trustee can choose to submit your trust to the probate court’s review, just as if there had been a formal probate proceeding.

In our experience, family members tend to overestimate their ability to get along with siblings and others affected by the handling of your estate. It might be that your daughter, whom you have named as successor trustee, chooses not to seek probate court approval — and later regrets it when your son challenges everything she did months or even years later. But, as we say, this is a fairly faint recommendation for a decision to force your estate through the probate court.

So how do the pluses and minuses stack up, and what do we think you should do about it? Here’s the executive summary:

There are very few cases in which administration of an estate will not be simpler and less expensive if a living trust is established — and fully funded — rather than requiring that the estate go through the probate court and process. Though there are some theoretical benefits to probate, they tend not to be too compelling in individual cases. But the real test is a cost-benefit analysis: will your family save enough (cost and hassle) from your decision to establish a living trust to justify the increased expenditure by you, right now?

As part of that analysis, how likely is it that the estate plan you create today will be the one in place when you die? In making this calculation, remember that most people really do need to revisit their estate planning documents about every five years, or even more frequently.

As you review this material, please remember two things:

  1. We live and practice in Arizona. Not every state has the same relatively simple probate process, but in some states probate is even simpler and less expensive. That means that the cost-benefit analysis we describe has to be made in your state, preferably in consultation with an estate planning attorney familiar with your state’s law and practices.
  2. Reasonable minds can and do differ. Few things generate the heat and passion among estate planning attorneys (we tend to be a pretty mild bunch) that you can get from the “do you need a living trust” question. We’ll post pretty much any response we see from other practitioners or regular folk, but ultimately you need to talk to a local attorney and get the straight scoop from her or him before making a final decision.

Reciprocal Wills Enforceable After Death of One Spouse

JULY 26, 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 23
Imagine a couple, each married for the second time. Perhaps each has children from a first marriage. Perhaps the couple has been married for years — even decades. They think of all the children as “their” children, even though they fully understand that the other spouse’s children are stepchildren.

One of the spouses — let us say the husband — dies. He leaves his interest in the family home, together with all the couple’s accumulated wealth, to his widow; his will specifies that on the second death all of the children share the estate equally. His children remain in contact with their stepmother for the next decade, though that contact lessens over time. When she dies, what happens to the home, the bank accounts and the remaining wealth?

This scenario plays out again and again. Most often, the deceased husband’s will is irrelevant. If the property all passed to the wife without restrictions, she is free to change her will, to transfer the property into trust, to spend it or even to give it away. But that is not always the case.

Ralph and Elaine Lawson married in 1971. They owned 12 acres of Iowa land as “joint tenants with right of survivorship.” They had three children between them: Ralph’s son and daughter Roger and Le Ann, and Elaine’s son Lonnie. Just to complicate things further, Ralph later adopted Lonnie.

In 1987 Ralph and Elaine signed identical wills. Each left everything to the other. On the second death, the wills provided that fifty percent of the combined estate would go to Lonnie, twenty percent each to Roger and Le Ann, and ten percent to the couple’s church. The wills contained an unusual provision: each included language that indicated the couple had agreed “that neither will change our will” without the other’s consent.

Ralph died first. The property passed to Elaine automatically because of the joint tenancy title, so Ralph’s will was not filed with the Iowa probate courts.

A few years later Elaine changed her estate plan. First she transferred the acreage to her son Lonnie, reserving a life estate for herself. Then she signed a new will, leaving the same proportions of her estate to Lonnie (50%), Roger (20%) and Le Ann (20%), but changing the church which would receive the remaining 10%. Shortly after that, Elaine died.

Roger and Le Ann sued to enforce the terms of their father’s and stepmother’s original wills. They alleged that the wills amounted to a contract, that Elaine’s transfer of the property to Lonnie violated that contract, and that the court should impose a trust upon the property to secure its return to the original beneficiaries. The trial judge reviewed the two wills and agreed with Roger and Le Ann.

The Iowa Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, ordering the imposition of a trust on the 12 acres. The language of Ralph’s and Elaine’s wills made it clear, according to the appellate judges, that their intent was to prevent the survivor from changing the estate plan by a new will or by transferring property during lifetime.

Lonnie argued, unsuccessfully, that the reciprocal wills should not prevent transfers of the acreage because it did not come into Elaine’s estate by virtue of Ralph’s will. The court dismissed that objection, noting that the language of the wills was broad enough to encompass any estate planning technique, whether it might be a will, a gift, or a living trust. The appellate judges also rejected Lonnie’s argument that his parents’ wills should not have been admitted to the court proceeding; the wills were not being admitted to probate, said the judges, but were being admitted to prove a contract. Consequently, the standards and requirements for admission were those governing contract documents rather than wills. Cunningham v. Lawson, July 14, 2010.

Would Arizona courts reach the same result? It is not completely clear, since the law of reciprocal wills (sometimes called mutual or contractual wills) is not well developed. What is clear in Arizona law is that reciprocal wills can be enforceable; what is less clear is whether they might prevent lifetime transfers of property by the surviving spouse.

One reason that the law is less than clear is that truly reciprocal wills are uncommon. Arizona’s probate code makes clear that the mere fact that wills are identical does not mean they embody a contract not to change the terms; in order to make the agreement binding it must be expressly stated in the wills or in a contractual document. Because that is uncommon, there is little law interpreting such terms.

What is more clear is that the question we hear so often is usually easy to answer. “Does my stepmother [or stepfather] have the right to leave the house she inherited from my dad [or mom] to her kids from her prior marriage?” Absent a clear contract not to change the will, or a trust provision prohibiting the transfer, the answer is likely to be: “I’m sorry, but yes.”

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