JANUARY 27, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 4
Arizona has a relatively strong statute dealing with exploitation of vulnerable adults. An exploiter can be charged criminally, and might receive a longer sentence or larger fine because of the victim’s vulnerability. But the strongest part of the Arizona law is probably the provision that lets the victim — or the victim’s heirs — pursue a civil judgment against the exploiter.
That was what Hazel Kaplan (not her real name) did. Her uncle Paul was a widower, living alone in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Paul’s estate plan included a trust naming Hazel as successor trustee, and leaving his estate to her and two other nieces. Hazel regularly visited with uncle Paul, and helped him to pay his bills. When Paul’s wife had died, it was Hazel who had been there to help make funeral arrangements and help Paul with the transition.
Then, in 2001, Karen moved in as a caretaker. Paul, an immigrant, had located her through the immigrant community in the eastern U.S., and she moved to Arizona to live with him, oversee his medications, drive him to appointments, feed and bathe him — even monitor his care, change his catheter and clean up after he suffered a heart attack in 2006. Karen was his only caretaker (other than one nurse who visited after his heart attack) from her arrival in 2001 until Paul’s death in 2008.
Paul’s accountant prepared four amendments to Paul’s trust between 2006 and 2008. Over the course of those amendments, Hazel’s share of the estate and her appointment as successor trustee were both removed — caretaker Karen and her son were named as trustees and Karen as the beneficiary of Paul’s entire estate.
Three months before his death, Paul visited his bank in the company of Karen and her son. He withdrew $200,000 and opened two accounts with the proceeds. One account was in Karen’s name with her son as co-owner; the other account named Paul himself and Karen’s son as co-owners. Two months later Karen closed out the account her name was on, and used the proceeds to buy a house in Delaware, where she had lived before moving in with Paul. The house had been a bank foreclosure, and Karen’s daughter was the real estate agent in the transaction. She did not put Paul’s name — or his trust’s — on the title. She sold the property immediately after Paul’s death for a significant gain, and kept the proceeds.
After Paul’s death, niece Hazel started a probate proceeding and a lawsuit against Karen and her son. She alleged that both had violated Arizona’s vulnerable adult statute, and asked for the return of everything either of them had received from Paul or his estate.
After a two-day trial, the probate judge ruled that Karen and her son had, indeed, exploited a vulnerable adult. He ruled that the trust amendments were invalid, and that Karen and her son forfeited any right to inherit any portion of Paul’s estate or trust as a result of their exploitation.
The Arizona Court of Appeals considered the evidence and arguments, and upheld the probate judge’s ruling. One key question: was Paul a vulnerable adult?
Several witnesses (including the accountant who prepared trust changes, the bankers who handled the transfer of money from Paul’s name to his exploiters’ names, and Karen and her son) all testified that he was mentally alert. His doctor testified that he was very passive and suggestible, and niece Hazel testified that Paul was very susceptible to others — particularly to women. The appellate court noted that the probate judge had been in a better position to judge the believability of each witness, but noted that the accountant and the bankers had a vested interest in testifying that Paul had been able to give them direction. Besides, said the appellate judges, mental impairment is not required for an adult to be “vulnerable” under Arizona law — physical disabilities and resultant reliance on caretakers can make the patient vulnerable to manipulation.
The result? Paul was a vulnerable adult, Karen and her son owed him a duty not to take advantage of him, and their acts exploited him — especially when they were involved in getting $200,000 transferred to them before Paul’s death. Oh, and Karen was ordered to pay Hazel’s legal fees for the appeal, too. Kousoulas v. Marinis, January 7, 2014.
Does Hazel’s lawsuit stand for the proposition that any caretaker who receives the estate of the person they cared for is necessarily an exploiter? No, but the relationship inherent in a caretaker/patient relationship is certainly subject to exploitation, and gifts to caretakers will always be suspect. The evidence that Karen kept Hazel from visiting her uncle, and that she and her son were involved in changing his estate plan (though they did not go into the room with the accountant when Paul signed trust changes) both weighed heavily against them.
If Paul had hired an attorney to handle his estate planning, rather than entrusting it to his accountant, would things have been different? Possibly — an attorney would likely have been more attuned to the importance of separating out the possibility of exploitation and (if it was clear that Paul genuinely wanted to leave his estate to his caretaker) documenting the evidence of Paul’s wishes. But the probate judge noted, and experienced lawyers usually realize, that it is difficult to assure that a client’s choices are not being changed by suggestions from caretakers — especially full-time, live-in caretakers, who have such a strong opportunity to develop a relationship based on dependency. That is, in fact, why there can be a presumption of undue influence when a change is made in favor of someone who has a fiduciary relationship with a vulnerable adult.