Posts Tagged ‘Arkansas Court of Appeals’

Arkansas Court Refuses to Allow Trust Modification

JUNE 25, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 24
A recent Arkansas Court of Appeals case reminds us (yet again) how important it can be to plan for the possibility of a future disability in your family. Here’s the background (with names changed to help protect internet privacy): Ruth Olsen, like thousands of other seniors, created a revocable living trust. She provided for gifts for nine grandchildren, including her granddaughter Christie.

When the trust was signed (in 2009), Christie was in her early 20s and living in another state. A year later she was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and a guardian was appointed. Just one month after the guardianship Ruth Olsen died.

Christie was receiving Medicaid benefits from the state where she lived. Her grandmother’s trust did include language indicating that the trustee should have discretion about whether or not to distribute either income or principal of her trust share to her or for her benefit, but it did not include specific language making clear that Ms. Olsen intended the trust to be a special needs trust.

The trustee of the trust is a bank headquartered in Arkansas, where Ms. Olsen lived and died. The trustee asked the local courts to allow the trust for Christie to be modified — just to make clear that it should be a special needs trust, and that the trustee should be required to try to protect Christie’s eligibility for Medicaid in her state.

The trial judge in Arkansas refused. He pointed out that — in Arkansas, at least — the Medicaid program was intended to be available only for people who had not other access to resources. According to the trial judge, it would violate the public policy of the State of Arkansas to allow court modification of a trust to prevent it being counted as a resource for Medicaid eligibility purposes.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals agreed (more accurately, it did not disagree — but the effect is the same). The appellate court declined to follow the lead of the Washington State Court of Appeals — the Washington court had allowed just such a modification, and in very similar circumstances.

The Court of Appeals cited a number of Arkansas cases in which courts refused to allow transfer of an individual’s assets into a self-settled special needs trust — thereby preventing eligibility for Arkansas Medicaid. Ruth Olsen’s trustee argued that (a) this trust was not a self-settled trust but a third-party trust, and the request was for clarification of the trust’s terms, not creation of a trust, and (b) the law and public policy in question should be those of the state where Christie lived, not Arkansas. Those arguments did not prevail. The appellate court declined to reverse the trial judge’s finding. Matter of Owen Trust, June 13, 2012.

We do not practice law in Arkansas (for which, incidentally, we are thankful), but there are a number of important points we take away from the Arkansas court decisions:

  • Courts often have a very hard time clearly separating “self-settled” special needs trusts from “third-party” special needs trusts. That should not be surprising — trust settlors, trustees and lawyers often have the same problem. It is confusing. But one key element should be kept in mind: if you are setting up a trust with your money for the benefit of someone who has (or might have) a disability, you are permitted to impose appropriate restrictions to make sure the money is not treated as an available resource for public benefits calculations.
  • Even if a formal finding of disability has not been made, it is prudent to include strong “special needs” trust language in your estate plan (your will or trust). That way you protect the availability of the money you leave to a child or grandchild and their eligibility for public benefits.
  • State laws vary. Some states (like Arkansas) take a dim view of transfers into special needs trusts — or, apparently, of efforts to ensure that even a third-party trust has appropriate provisions. Other states (like Washington) would more likely permit a clarification such as the one Ruth Olsen’s trustee proposed. Where is Arizona in this continuum of state approaches? Much closer to Washington than to Arkansas. In general, states which have adopted the Uniform Trust Code (about half of the states have) are more likely to allow modifications like the one proposed here — but not always (Arkansas has adopted the Uniform Trust Code, but it didn’t help Christie).
  • Just to keep things confusing, it is not even clear that the proposed modification is necessary. The state Medicaid rules in Christie’s new state are more important in analyzing her grandmother’s trust than are the state laws in Arkansas. And Christie might well move to yet another state before she actually makes a Medicaid application. Her grandmother’s trust — even though not perfectly written — might well be treated as a third-party special needs trust, depending on the state (and, candidly, on the eligibility worker, the law at the time of her Medicaid application and perhaps a handful of other factors).

What is the ultimate take-away message? Plan carefully. Talk with a qualified lawyer — one who knows something about disability, public benefits and the surprises that can be in store. Make sure you fully share information about your family, your concerns, and your wishes. Learn local laws and practices. Having a disability — or having a family member with a disability — can make planning much more difficult and complicated, and the results much more uncertain.

Probate Judge Sets Visitation Schedule in Minor Guardianship

DECEMBER 5, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 41
Most of the guardianship issues we deal with at Fleming & Curti, PLC, involve adults who have limited capacity or special needs. Sometimes, though, the subjects of a guardianship proceeding are minors; that can bring unique issues to the process.

There are a few legal principles that govern guardianship of minors:

  1. Minors are by definition “incompetent” under the law. In other words, they can not enter into binding contracts, they can not make enforceable decisions about their own living arrangements and health care (though “emancipated” minors may be different, and special exceptions may apply to the broad principle laid out here).
  2. Parents are the “natural guardians” of their minor children. That means they do not need court involvement to take responsibility for and control of their children’s care.
  3. Disputes between parents (usually, but not always, after they are divorced) about upbringing, care, education and living arrangements can be resolved in court — but the court involved is usually the domestic relations (sometimes called divorce or family) court.
  4. When parents are unfit, the decisions about placement, care, education and visitation are likely to be handled by a different branch of court, usually called juvenile court.
  5. Guardianship of minors is not uncommon, but in Arizona (as in most states) it is only appropriate when there is no parent available to exercise parental control. Of the three types court proceedings dealing with minors (juvenile, domestic and guardianship), the guardianship process is the least-used and usually the least-important.

Every generalization has its limitations, of course (presumably including this one, but that’s a philosophical issue for another day). Guardianship proceedings can and do exist for minors, and significant legal and family issues can and do get resolved in the guardianship context. Consider the case of the Smith/Lowrance/Wallace family in Arkansas.

In 2005 Timothy Wallace shot and killed his wife Brandy and a friend. Although he fled the United States after being released on bail, he has been returned, tried, and sentenced to two life terms. The death of Brandy Wallace and the incarceration of her husband meant that the couple’s three minor children, identified in court papers as “ZW,” “MW” and “CW,” had no parents available to raise them.

Three family members stepped forward to assert their priorities. Brandy Wallace’s mother (Janet Smith) and brother (Brian Lowrance, along with his wife Anna Lowrance), and a half-sister each argued that they should be appointed guardian for the three children. The court initially appointed Ms. Smith and the Lowrances together; after a later agreement and hearing, the Lowrances were appointed as permanent guardians and Ms. Smith was given a right to reasonable visitation with her grandchildren.

For several years the parties worked out a visitation schedule without too much conflict. In early 2010, though, Mr. and Mrs. Lowrance decided to limit Ms. Smith’s visitation; they required that all her visits with her grandchildren had to be supervised by one of them, and they cut off any overnight visits. Ms. Smith asked the probate judge (in Arkansas, as in Arizona, minor guardianships are handled in the probate court) to order the Lowrances to return to the earlier and more generous visitation schedule.

After a hearing the probate judge scolded both parties. He chastised the Lowrances for modifying the visitation arrangements unilaterally, and told Ms. Smith that she would have to find transportation to visit her grandchildren or give up visitation. Then he ordered a specific visitation schedule, similar to the kind that divorced couples sometimes see when the courts attempt to regulate the behavior of parents who can not work out visitation on their own initiative.

Mr. and Mrs. Lowrance appealed the imposition of a specific visitation schedule. They argued that they had done nothing wrong, and that they had just been protecting the children from a dangerous situation. They pointed out that Ms. Smith had allowed two of the children, then aged eleven and seven, to operate a “chainsaw.” While Ms. Smith acknowledged that she had allowed the two to operate a battery-operated saw, she agreed not to permit them to use any power tools in the future, and the probate judge had entered an order to that effect.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals agreed with the probate judge that, given the disagreements and the parties’ inability to work out their differences, a specific visitation schedule was in order. Although the relationship of Ms. Smith to the children is not the same as a parental relationship, the appellate judges ruled that the goal in a guardianship action should be the same as in domestic relations proceedings: serving the best interests of the minor children. Given the history of disagreement and litigation, the probate judge’s order “achieved the best interests of the children by fostering continued relationships, by eliminating continued litigation, and by crafting visits to fit with the children’s busy lives.” Lowrance v. Smith, 2011 Ark. App. 725 (November 30, 2011).

In Rare Challenge, Court Finds Revocation of Will Effective

FEBRUARY 22, 2010  VOLUME 17, NUMBER 6

The popular conception of the probate process and the making of wills is colored by misinformation from a number of sources. Movies, books and plays provide much of the misunderstanding, building an expectation of “the reading of the will” in a lawyer’s office (it just doesn’t happen), regular will contests (they are quite rare) and regular revocation of wills. That last is especially rare, and so a recent case focusing on how one revokes a will, and what level of mental capacity it requires, is a legal gem.

Why don’t people revoke their wills more often? They do — but the nearly universal way one revokes a will is to sign a new will, which recites that any previous wills are no longer effective. It is especially rare to destroy an existing will without signing a new one. When that does happen, the person no longer has a will at all — and the state law of “intestate succession” takes effect, just as it would if there had never been a will.

So how does one revoke a will, if they are for some reason not inclined to sign a new one? There are any number of ways to do so, but the classic method is for the person to physically tear his or her own will into at least two pieces. What Bill Potts did was more elaborate: he drew lines through every line of text, applied Liquid Paper to the names of the beneficiaries he had listed in the will, wrote “void” over each paragraph, and then wrote “bastard” and “get nothing” next to some of the names. Just to make sure he had driven his point home, he later took the marked-up document to his insurance agent’s office and fed it to their shredder.

As an aside, Mr. Potts’ approach would have worked just fine under Arizona law, too. The statute in Arizona requires only that the testator (the person who signed the will in the first place) perform “a revocatory act on the will.” That includes burning, tearing, canceling, obliterating or destroying the will or any part of it. It does not include telling someone else to do any of those things, unless the testator is conscious and physically present at the time.

After Mr. Potts died the individuals named in the will sought to admit a copy to the Arkansas probate courts. They argued that Mr. Potts had suffered from “insane delusions” at the time he tried to revoke the will, and that his revocation was ineffective.

The trial in probate court primarily focused on Mr. Potts’ belief that his late wife might have had an affair with one of the beneficiaries named in his will, that another might have stolen a gold bracelet belonging to his wife. A psychiatrist testified that those beliefs were the product of a “delusional disorder.” The trial judge found that Mr. Potts’ belief about his wife’s infidelity was probably wrong, and that his poor hearing and irascible nature probably contributed to a misunderstanding about the bracelet, Still, ruled the judge, the will beneficiaries had not met their burden of showing that Mr. Potts lacked testamentary capacity when he revoked his will, and therefore the revocation was effective. Bill Potts died intestate.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals agreed, and upheld the probate court’s ruling. The appellate court spent some time considering whether there was sufficient evidence that Mr. Potts had the level of capacity needed to write a will — the same standard that would be applicable to determining whether he had the capacity to revoke a will. Although Mr. Potts frequently claimed, for example, that he had no relatives, the appellate court agreed that he probably meant that he had no surviving close relatives. Meanwhile, he could identify some, perhaps most, of his remaining distant relatives, and he just didn’t know where they lived, or even whether they were still alive.

“The evidence clearly showed that Bill was an irascible, angry, suspicious, controlling, profane and difficult man for most of his adult life,” wrote the appellate judges. That, however, was not enough to find his will revocation invalid. He had the capacity to revoke his will, and presumably he would have had the capacity to sign a new will — if he had known who he wanted his estate to go to. Heirs of Goza v. Estate of Potts, February 17, 2010.

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