Posts Tagged ‘Indiana Court of Appeals’

Probate Judge’s Unique Guardianship Orders Overturned

AUGUST 1, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 29
At Fleming & Curti, PLC, we handle a lot of guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. We even act as guardian (of the person) and/or conservator (of the estate) in some cases — particularly when family members are unavailable or unable to agree on the best course of action. But one thing we consistently maintain: if there is any reasonable way to avoid a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding, it should be explored first. Court proceedings are expensive, interfere with the autonomy of the subject of the proceedings, and seldom result in entirely happy outcomes.

The most common way to avoid guardianship and conservatorship, of course, is for a person to sign a durable power of attorney (two, actually — one for health care and another for financial authority) naming someone to act on behalf of the signer. When confronted with a preexisting power of attorney, probate judges normally will appoint a guardian or conservator. Of course, if the person named in a power of attorney is acting improperly, the court will not hesitate to intervene. But usually a valid power of attorney avoids the need for court proceedings.

Of course, some family disputes can be intense — and often over the oddest and smallest issues. Take, for example, the case of Hazel McNabb (not her real name), an 89-year-old Indiana woman with six children. Her family’s disagreements arose, and hardened, over what to do after Hazel’s home was damaged by a tornado in 2013. Two of her children thought the bathroom could be repaired and used after the storm; four children felt that her bathroom should be remodeled.

Almost a decade before, Hazel had signed health care and financial powers of attorney, naming son Patrick and daughter Molly as co-agents. It was Molly and Patrick who thought no remodeling was required, and the other four children (Michael, Bridget, Kevin and Gabrielle) complained that, in the aftermath, Molly had begun to isolate them from their mother and cut them out of the discussions about her care.

Believing that Hazel’s mental faculties were declining, and that Patrick and Molly could not be trusted to act in her best interests, Kevin filed a petition asking for appointment of the four children as co-guardians. The probate judge held a hearing, and fashioned an unusual order: the judge appointed all six children as co-guardians, each with specific, limited authority.

Under the probate judge’s order, Michael (a priest) was appointed as guardian over Hazel’s “spiritual needs and affairs.” Bridget, a hairstylist, was appointed guardian over Hazel’s “health care needs and hygiene” (and specifically instructed to ensure that her hair and nails were styled on a regular basis). Molly, who had been named in the power of attorney, was appointed as guardian over Hazel’s “personal” finances (what in Arizona we might call conservatorship — though the limitation to “personal” finances is confusing). Kevin and Patrick were appointed as co-guardians to handle Hazel’s “business ventures” (though the nature of those business ventures is not clear from the appellate court opinion). The probate judge also set out a schedule of visitation to make sure each child would have regular contact with Hazel.

At the same time he entered this complicated order, the probate judge instructed all Hazel’s children that they needed to work together, and to keep Hazel’s interests in mind at all times. He directed that they were all to consider Hazel’s “input and feelings concerning a specific issue before making a decision.”

One odd result from this order is based on Indiana’s law on guardianship: if a preexisting power of attorney is in place, a guardian has no authority over the items managed through the power of attorney unless the probate judge expressly orders revocation of the power of attorney. Since that was not done in Hazel’s case, it meant that Patrick and Molly, the two agents, would still have authority over all health care and financial decisions. Unsurprisingly, those two children declined to accept their appointments as, essentially, limited conservators of a portion (each) of Hazel’s property. Instead, they appealed the probate judge’s findings and order.

Molly and Patrick argued that Hazel was not, in fact, incapacitated at all — and if she was, no guardian was necessary because the power of attorney was working as she had intended. The Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed about the finding of incapacity, but agreed that the existence of the power of attorney might make the unusual guardianship order unnecessary.

According to the appellate court, when a power of attorney is in place it might be unnecessary to appoint a guardian at all. In fact, since the power of attorney was not revoked by the probate judge, the guardians really had no power — the agents named in the power of attorney held all the authority. While agreeing that Hazel was incapacitated, the Court of Appeals reversed the order appointing multiple guardians and remanded the case for the probate judge to reconsider whether there was any need for a guardianship at all. Guardianship of Morris, July 12, 2016.

The probate judge in Hazel’s case should probably be commended for his attempt to bring her family back to the table to discuss her care together. Nonetheless, consideration for her wishes should mean that the default outcome will be recognition of her power(s) of attorney — unless it can be shown that the agents are behaving inappropriately, or failing to act.

Would the same result occur in Arizona courts? Probably not — or at least not for the same reasons. Arizona does not have a law like the Indiana statute giving continuing priority to agents under a durable power of attorney. Instead, the relative authority between a guardian, conservator and agent under one or more powers of attorney are somewhat unsettled in Arizona law. A person is able to indicate their preference for who should be appointed as guardian or conservator, and in practice a power of attorney will usually avoid the need for court involvement — but there is less clarity about the legal status than in Indiana law.

Nursing Home Bills and “the Doctrine of Necessaries”

JULY 8, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 25
Under the English common law (inherited, to a greater or lesser degree, by all the states of the U.S.), a husband was obligated to support his wife and children. Because women could not legally enter into enforceable contracts, a person who provided goods or services to a woman (or a minor child) on credit might not be able to enforce the collection of the debt. Even if a merchant sold (for instance) food to a married woman on credit, the merchant ran the risk that he might never collect on the debt.

This commercial problem gave rise to a principle of the English common law called “the doctrine of necessaries.” If a merchant provided goods or services to a married woman or minor child, he would be able to collect from the husband/father — if the sale was for “necessaries.” That usually meant food, shelter, clothing, medical care and the like.

Today, where it still exists, the doctrine of necessaries is applied in a gender-neutral way. A husband OR wife might be sued for the “necessaries” provided to his or her spouse. One key step before bringing the action, though, is that the spouse to whom the necessaries were provided must first be determined to be unable to pay for his or her own care.

That neatly sets up the scenario in a recent Indiana Court of Appeals case. Marjorie and Orson (not their real names) were married; Marjorie was admitted to a nursing home. Eventually Marjorie was made eligible for Medicaid, which paid for much of her nursing home care. By the time of her death, though, she had a $5,871.40 unpaid bill at the nursing home.

The nursing home tried to collect from Marjorie’s family. They wrote to her daughter Wilma, who had signed her into the home (and had, incidentally, foolishly signed the admission papers as “guarantor”). They wrote to Orson. They did not get paid. Then they sued Orson and Wilma. When Orson died before the litigation was resolved, the nursing home made a claim against Orson’s estate. The nursing home’s argument: under Indiana’s version of the doctrine of necessaries, he was responsible for his wife’s nursing home bill, and it should be collectible from his estate.

The trial judge denied the nursing home’s claim, reasoning that the home should first have brought legal action against Marjorie (while she was still alive) or her estate. Besides, ruled the trial judge, it was Wilma who had signed her mother into the nursing home, not Orson.

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the claim. The three judges deciding the case first noted that the doctrine of necessaries might no longer be relevant in any event. If it is, though, the person making a claim under it must go through the steps required to pursue the claim. The nursing home should first have sued Marjorie or her estate; as a creditor, they could have opened an estate in Marjorie’s name to officially determine that she died without assets. Just saying that she had nothing, or even that she was a Medicaid patient and so must not have had anything, was not enough. Hickory Creek at Connersville v. Estate of Combs, June 27, 2013.

Let us assume for a moment that Marjorie’s estate was in fact insolvent. If the nursing home had initiated a probate proceeding, determined that she had no assets and then filed against Orson (and later his estate), they might have collected. But now they will be precluded from doing so; the time for presenting claims against Orson’s estate will have expired, and even if a new filing was made to establish Marjorie’s lack of assets there would be no opportunity to pursue the estate.

It is less clear (at least from the Court of Appeals decision) whether the nursing home could still pursue daughter Wilma. She did sign the admission document, and as “guarantor.” The resolution of the claim against her father’s estate does not necessarily resolve the nursing home’s lawsuit against Wilma. The lesson for others is clear: if you sign a nursing home admission agreement for another person (as, say, agent under a power of attorney, or conservator of the estate, or next of kin), make sure you cross out any reference to being a “guarantor” or “responsible party.”

But back to the doctrine of necessaries: does it still exist in Indiana? Yes, according to the Court of Appeals — though its vitality is doubtful.

What about Arizona? Remember that Arizona is a community property state, which means that the obligations of one spouse may not always be the responsibility of the other. Does this mean that the doctrine of necessaries does have vitality in Arizona? Probably not — though there are three reported Arizona Court of Appeals decisions about the doctrine. All three of them, however, involve failed attempts to apply the doctrine to care provided for minor children. In two of them, in fact, the doctrine was raised by out-of-state government agencies who provided welfare benefits to minors, and sought recovery against an Arizona father. Neither court allowed the doctrine of necessaries to apply — but mostly because the agencies have perfectly good rights to recovery under federal child-support rules.

Incidentally, the doctrine of necessaries is different from (even though similar to) so-called “filial support” or “filial responsibility” laws (we have provided information about filial support laws before). The concept of necessaries grew from a common law notion, and was originally applied exclusively to the provision of goods and services to married women and minor children. Filial support laws are state enactments that create a different liability — a child might be liable for an impoverished parent’s care under those newer laws, where they exist.

 

Court Avoids Deciding Fate of Unnecessary Special Needs Trust

MAY 13, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 19
We read an interesting appellate court case this week involving an Indiana special needs trust. The court’s resolution of the case was actually not all that interesting — it was dismissed on technical grounds. But the story was an interesting one, and involved a problem that we see from time to time. It also gives a chance to suggest some solutions to that problem (in addition to the one that the trial court judge actually implemented in the case).

Eileen Rogers (not her real name) owned a family farm in Indiana, and she had three adult children. One of them, daughter Jewel, was disabled: she had been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, and she received Social Security Disability payments. Because of her SSDI benefits Jewel was also covered by Medicare.

Ms. Rogers and her late husband had created a trust before his death. It provided that on the second spouse’s death the combined estate would be divided into three equal shares, with one to go to each child. In 2006 Ms. Rogers amended the trust to set up a special needs trust for Jewel’s one-third share. That special needs trust included a sort of a “poison pill” provision: if any government agency ever decided to treat the money as available to Jewel and thereby sought to  reduce her public benefits, her trust would terminate and be distributed to the other two children, as if Jewel had died.

In 2010 Ms. Rogers died. A dispute developed between her other two children (Jewel’s brother and sister) about what to do with the trust for her benefit. The basic problem: Jewel didn’t need a special needs trust to qualify for benefits. Astute readers will have seen this coming: Jewel’s Social Security Disability and Medicare benefits would not be affected by an outright inheritance, since they are not sensitive to assets or the income earned on those assets.

What should be done? Jewel’s brother thought that the trust should continue anyway, with him as trustee. Since the principal asset in Ms. Rogers’ estate was the family farm, that would allow the farm to stay largely intact and continue under his management. Jewel’s sister, however, agreed with Jewel herself: the farm should be divided, and Jewel’s one-third share should be distributed to her outright. The trust had been set up by mistake, they reasoned, and it should be terminated.

The local trial court agreed with the two sisters. He ruled that there was no reason to keep the trust and it should be dissolved. Jewel’s brother sought to intervene and to argue that the trust’s terms should be followed; the judge denied his request and maintained the dissolution of the trust.

Jewel’s brother appealed. Tragically, he died before the appeal was decided — but it was continued on his estate’s behalf by his wife. As noted earlier, the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal based on technical grounds: the order denying Jewel’s brother’s request did not contain the language necessary to make it an appealable order. Raper v. Haber, May 6, 2013.

Even though the dispute over Ms. Roger’s trust does not establish any precedent, and wasn’t even decided on the merits of the trial court’s ruling, it does give us a chance to reflect on the problem of unnecessary special needs trusts. We see this issue from time to time: with all the public discussion about special needs trusts, parents and other family members often think they must establish such a trust for any person with any disability regardless of other circumstances. But, in fact, many people with disabilities receive all their benefits from Social Security Disability and Medicare, and such individuals will not usually be affected by inheritances they might receive outright.

The issue is actually more complicated than that. Some individuals receive both Social Security Disability AND Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments, often because they are covered under their retired parents’ accounts. If they inherit money outright, they might lose the SSI portion of that income, and perhaps have their Medicaid benefits reduced or eliminated. But sometimes such individuals will receive an increase in their Social Security (not SSI) payments upon the death of their parents — and so it can often be difficult to determine in advance whether a special needs trust is really necessary.

Does that mean that no special needs trust should be considered for someone who is already receiving Social Security rather than SSI? Not necessarily. Sometimes a special needs trust (or at least an irrevocable trust) is appropriate for one or the other — or both — of two reasons:

  1. Even though the individual is not receiving SSI payments, he or she might be receiving Medicaid benefits — and sometimes without really even realizing it. Medicaid might, for instance, be paying for their Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) premiums and co-payments.
  2. Even though a “special needs” trust might not be necessary, a person with disabilities might be unable to reliably handle their own money. In such a case, an irrevocable trust — which might even look much like a special needs trust — might be appropriate.

Another issue comes to mind in reviewing the appellate court decision involving Ms. Rogers’ trust: might there have been other alternatives available? Of course, we do not know the details of her family situation, or her daughter Jewel’s level of ability and sophistication, so we are not really proposing alternate resolutions for her case. But in other circumstances, it might be possible to modify the unneeded special needs trust to make it more appropriate (rather than terminating it altogether). There are several ways such a thing might be accomplished, and solving problems like that are what good lawyers do best.

Will Rejected in Illinois but Approved by Indiana Courts

JANUARY 30, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 4
We are frequently surprised by how much trouble people cause for their families and heirs by not taking simple steps to properly plan for their estates. One thread that often recurs involves a fear (or perhaps disapproval) of lawyers, leading to failure to get good legal advice about planning, or about the execution of documents. This week we read about a different reaction, but with the same result. Florian T. Latek didn’t trust notaries.

Mr. Latek owned a small family farm in Indiana, but he lived (and owned real property) in Illinois. In 2009, with the help of a non-lawyer friend, he wrote a letter to the lawyer for a local charity he favored. The letter began “This is my will” and it proceeded to direct distribution of his entire estate to that charity and other recipients. Then he prepared four identical copies of the document, and signed each one.

Apparently Mr. Latek realized he should have the documents notarized, but he wrote that he did not trust notaries; instead, he included his Army serial number with the note that he hoped it would “be good for any legal matters.” Then he had some — but not all — of the copies witnessed by friends, and he secreted one copy (one that had no witnesses’ signatures) behind (not in) a small safe at the Indiana farm. Less than two months later, Mr. Latek died.

Probate proceedings were begun first in Illinois. The Illinois courts initially determined that Mr. Latek had no will; later, when the friend who had helped prepare the document got in touch with the charity named in the letters, the unwitnessed version was found at the farmhouse. When the charity’s lawyer attempted to introduce that will in the Illinois courts, it was initially rejected because it did not meet the Illinois requirements for a will to be valid. Later a copy with witnesses’ signatures was located, but the lawyer could not produce the witnesses to testify about the signing of the letter in the time given by the Illinois court to prove the validity of the will. The result: the Illinois property would pass according to the law of intestate succession, to Mr. Latek’s cousins (he had no children).

Meanwhile, the charity’s lawyer filed one of the letters with the Indiana courts for admission as Mr. Latek’s last will. If admitted, it would control the distribution of the family farm. The personal representative appointed in Illinois objected, arguing that Illinois had already decided that the will was invalid and the Indiana courts were bound by that finding.

The Indiana probate judge disagreed. The will was admitted to probate in Indiana, and the lawyer for the charity was appointed to administer Mr. Latek’s Indiana estate.

The personal representative appointed in Illinois appealed in Indiana. He argued that the U.S. Constitution requires each state to give “full faith and credit” to the rulings of sister states; once the Illinois courts had rejected Mr. Latek’s letter as a will, according to this argument, the Indiana courts were required to adopt the same ruling. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, disagreed with that argument, and upheld the Indiana probate court’s admission of Mr. Latek’s letter as his last will. Matter of Latek, January 4, 2012.

What does Mr. Latek’s estate tell the rest of us? A number of things jump out:

  • It just makes sense to get help with setting up one’s estate plan. Assuming that it will all work out, that one’s Army serial number ought to prove one’s wishes, or that notaries are unreliable are not good ideas when dealing with the legal effect of documents. It is touching to note that Mr. Latek also told the charity’s lawyer that he should “tell the judge that we were classmates and do the very best you can,” but that just makes it harder to understand why he did not consult with a lawyer he obviously knew and trusted. Would the lawyer have charged him? Of course. But his wishes might have actually been carried out, rather than two different proceedings with two different results.
  • Mr. Latek looks like a classic example of the kind of person who ought to be considering a living trust. Rather than relying on two different probate courts to come to the same conclusion, he could have transferred both his Illinois real estate and his Indiana real estate — along with all his personal property — to a trust that would have been governed by the law of one state or the other. Would that have cost him something to set up? Yes. It would also have permitted his estate to be managed and distributed in a coherent and effective way, at (ultimately) lower cost than two separate probate proceedings in Illinois and Indiana. That would especially have proven to be true when the cost of one appellate case is factored in. If you own real property in two different states, you should particularly pay attention to the outcome for Mr. Latek’s estate.
  • State laws vary with regard to the formalities of wills. Some states require notarization OR two witnesses. Some states permit unwitnessed wills to be effective, provided that they are signed and in the signer’s handwriting. But here’s a piece of news for do-it-yourself fans: ALL U.S. states would treat a will as effective if it has both two witnesses and a notary. Yes, some states require the signer, the witnesses and the notary to all have been together at the signing — so it just makes sense to do it that way at a minimum.

 

Challenge to Three-Year-Old Trust Reformation is Dismissed

JANUARY 9, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 2
With the increased emphasis on (and use of) living trusts for estate planning, we lawyers are seeing more and more cases in which an old trust needs modification. Perhaps the tax laws have changed since a parent or grandparent died. Maybe what once made sense is less defensible in light of modern investment thinking, or the cost of living has caught up with what once seemed like a generous bequest. Family dynamics, always fluid, can change the reasonableness of a decades-old estate plan. Everyone knows someone whose family was once considered wealthy, and now is considerably less so. Any of those scenarios — and dozens of others — can be the basis of a desire to change something that seemed set in stone when the plan was adopted.

That’s when lawyers begin talking about trust reformation or modification. In recent years we have begun talking about decanting — pouring the contents of an older trust into the vessel of a new trust document. Not every state permits decanting, though, and state laws vary in how they approach modification of trusts. That can lead to uncertainty, family friction and even litigation.

Take, for instance, the recent Indiana case involving the trust — and the family — of John and Ruth Rhinehart. In 1997 Mr. and Mrs. Rhinehart established an irrevocable trust for the benefit of their daughter, Julie R. Waterfield. They placed $4 million in the trust, and provided that at least $100,000 per year would be paid to their daughter. When she dies her trust will divide into three new trusts — one for each of her children. Each of those trusts will pay $25,000 per year to the grandchild for whom it is set up.

That was certainly a generous gift, and should help provide for the welfare of the Rhinehart’s daughter and grandchildren for decades. In fact, the trust has grown — as of 2009 it was worth about $22 million. What could possibly be wrong with the Rhineharts’ largesse?

Sometime shortly after the trust was created, Julie Waterfield made a pledge to Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). She promised the University $1.5 million so that a new recital hall could be built in the campus’s new music building — a building, incidentally, named after her parents.

There was only one problem with her pledge. By late in 2002, stock holdings she had expected to use for the donation had become worthless. It appeared that the only way for her to meet her pledge would be to increase the annual payments from the trust established by her parents. She would need not $100,000 per year, but more like $275,000.

She and her lawyer approached the trustees about how to reform the trust to permit the larger distributions. Everyone agreed that if she could get the approval of all of the future beneficiaries, the trust could be modified. The trustees engaged Ms. Waterfield’s lawyer to complete the process, and he filed a court proceeding seeking an increase in the distribution. The Indiana court approved the increase, conditional on getting all eighteen potential beneficiaries — current, future and contingent — to sign consents.

At a family meeting in December, 2002, all three of Ms. Waterfield’s children signed the agreement to reform the trust. One of them requested a copy of the full agreement, and the trust’s lawyer sent him a copy a few days later. Ms. Waterfield’s distributions were increased and, presumably, her pledge fulfilled.

Three years later, two of Ms. Waterfield’s children expressed concern about the increase in their mother’s distributions. They argued that their signatures on the agreement to reform the trust had been obtained by fraud, and they brought suit against their mother and the corporate co-trustee of the trust. Ms. Waterfield and the trustee argued that it was too late — that the statute of limitations on such an action ran out two years after the change was approved. In any case, they insisted, there was no injury to Ms. Waterfield’s children: there would be plenty of money available to fund their annual $25,000 distributions. The trial judge agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. The appellate judges noted that both sons’ signatures were on the agreement, that they acknowledged they had gotten a letter from the lawyer which claimed it enclosed a copy of the agreement, and that it strained credulity to think that they would have failed to ask for the referenced enclosure if it had not in fact been in the envelope with the letter. In other words, their cause of action — if they had one — was known to them at least by the date of that letter. In Indiana, the statute of limitations on such an allegation of breach of fiduciary duty is two years — the Waterfield children waited more than a year too long before filing their lawsuit.

Furthermore, according to the appellate judges, the growth of the trust to $22 million — despite several years of increased distributions to Ms. Waterfield — adequately protected her sons’ interest so that they were not injured by the trust reformation. The Court of Appeals rejected their argument that the trust itself was injured by what they insisted was fraudulent behavior. The beneficiaries do not have the authority to bring their action on the basis of injury to the trust, but must show injury to themselves, according to the Court. Matter of Waterfield v. Trust Co., December 30, 2011.

Would the answer have been different in Arizona? Possibly. But it is more likely that the process itself would have been different in Arizona. With adoption of the Arizona Trust Code (a version of the Uniform Trust Code) it has become easier to modify or reform a trust. Some modifications can be done without the court’s involvement at all. Perhaps more importantly, it has become somewhat easier to clearly begin the running of the statute of limitations on claims against trustees under Arizona’s new law.

Failure to Distribute Estate On Time Leads to Damages Award

JULY 5, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 24
Family members sometimes assume that an estate will be ready for distribution within days or weeks of a death. Those familiar with the probate process usually appreciate that it is more likely that distribution will be between six months to a year after death — and sometimes longer. When the decedent established a living trust, though, survivors often expect the final distribution to be faster. Everyone has gathered for the funeral, including out-of-town children and grandchildren — shouldn’t there be a check ready to hand out while the whole family is together?

The reality is that administration of an estate, even when a trust is involved, can take much longer. A good rule of thumb: it may still take six months to a year to prepare final income tax returns, gather trust assets, liquidate those which need to be sold (and not all will need to be sold in most cases), make calculations and actually complete the distribution. If there are more complicated issues, like estate tax liability, it may take even longer.

Delay in distribution of a trust estate was the issue involved in a recent Indiana Court of Appeals case. Harrison Eiteljorg’s will had provided a trust for his widow, Sonja Eiteljorg. When she died in 2003, the trust was to be divided into two shares — one each for Harrison’s sons Nick and Jack. Nick, a stepson and Harrison’s accountant were the co-trustees.

The trust was large — it held about $13 million of assets. That meant that an estate tax return had to be filed, and taxes totaling $6.2 million paid (remember that in 2003 tax was imposed on estates greater than $1 million). That was accomplished by late 2004, but the trustees were worried about closing out the estate and distributing the remaining assets. What would they do if the IRS disagreed with their calculations of values and imposed an additional tax liability.

At a heated meeting between the co-trustees and the two sons, Nick demanded a partial distribution of $2 million (half each to himself and Jack). The other trustees declined, saying that they worried that additional tax of up to $2 million might be imposed, and a distribution as large as Nick wanted would leave the trust with too little cash if that happened. They proposed instead to distribute $1 million to the two sons. Nick and Jack left the meeting without agreeing, and both sides hired new lawyers to battle out the timing and amount of a distribution.

A few months later Nick and Jack filed a petition with the Indiana probate court asking for removal of the co-trustees and entry of a judgment against them. Their argument: there was no reason not to distribute the requested $2 million when demanded, and failure to do so breached the trustees’ duty to the beneficiaries. The trustees answered, arguing that they needed to retain substantial liquidity until the IRS finally accepted the estate tax return (or imposed additional tax liability, if that was to be the outcome).

About a year after their original demand for partial distribution, Jack and Nick secured an order from the probate judge requiring that $1.5 million be divided between them. The co-trustees complied. The court proceedings then shifted gears to address a two-part question: did the delay in distribution amount to a breach of fiduciary duty, and (if it did) what were the damages due to Nick and Jack?

The probate judge found that the delay did amount to a breach of fiduciary duty. Nick testified that he would have put his distribution into two mutual funds, and that it would have grown significantly during the months he was deprived of its use. Jack testified that he had planned to purchase real estate in Texas, and that it would have appreciated. In addition, Nick and Jack had incurred attorneys fees totaling $403,612.81.

Based on the damages testimony, the probate judge awarded Nick $156,701 in “lost” profits from the funds he could not invest in. Jack was awarded $112,046.77 in missed real estate gains. The remaining co-trustees were ordered to pay those amounts from their own pockets, as well as all but $50,000 of the attorneys fees.

The Indiana Court of Appeals had a different take on the case, and significantly reduced the damages award. First, two of the three appellate judges agreed with the trial judge that failure to distribute the funds earlier was a breach of fiduciary duty. Rather than giving Nick and Jack the profits they said they would have earned, however, the two judges limited their damages to the interest that the $1.2 million would have earned during the nine months it was delayed — and even that damage award was to be reduced by the amount of interest the money actually earned in the trustees’ hands. The appellate court also reduced the attorneys fee award to a total of $150,000 — what they called “a more appropriate assessment.” In the Matter of Trust of Eiteljorg, June 27, 2011.

One appellate judge would not have gone even that far. According to the dissenting opinion he authored, there was no breach of fiduciary duty. After all, he reasoned, the co-trustees offered to distribute almost exactly what was ordered a few months later, and Nick and Jack rejected the partial distribution plan. Retaining at least $2 million in liquid assets until the estate tax return had been accepted was a reasonable and prudent course, according to the dissenting opinion.

What lessons can we draw from the Eiteljorg case? Several come to mind:

  • Even with a trust, it may take months or years after a death to complete the administration and make final distribution. That is not the usual circumstance, but it can happen.
  • Although avoidance of litigation is one common goal of trust planning, it is not always effective. And the cost of probate or trust litigation can be significant — note that Nick and Jack incurred legal fees of about one-third of the total amount they sought as distribution, and that the question was not whether they were entitled to the money, but only when.
  • In addition to increasing cost, litigation can slow down the process. Here, the co-trustees were ready to make a significant distribution at the first meeting, but the court-ordered distribution (of almost exactly the same amount) was delayed for nine months.
  • Acting as trustee can sometimes be costly. The co-trustees in this case will be liable for at least $150,000 out of their own pockets. We can anticipate that Nick and Jack will object to any attempt to pay the trustees’ own lawyers from trust assets, or to pay any fees to the co-trustees.

Agents Under Power of Attorney Justify $20 Million in Expenditures

OCTOBER 11, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 32
Imagine this: you have a long-standing history of philanthropy and community involvement. You have substantial assets and you feel that you should use some of them to enrich the community where you live, where you made your fortune, and where your children were raised. Your spouse agrees with you about these goals, and the two of you want to make sure someone has the power to continue to pursue those goals even if you become incapacitated. You should both sign a power of attorney, and name as agent someone who you know agrees with your world view, right?

That is what Irwin and Xenia Miller, of Columbus, Indiana, did. In 1995 they signed mirror-image powers of attorney naming one another as agent. They both named one of their five children and a long-time financial adviser as co-agents to act if either could not act for the other. Then they went about living their lives.

To make their intentions clear, Irwin Miller wrote a letter to the couple’s children in 1996. “Of all the things we can ‘leave to you,'” he wrote, “money seems to us to be the least important.” He went on to tell the children that he and Xenia “have not lived and worked primarily to maximize your inheritance.” “We have worked and lived to make a constructive contribution to our community, church, and nation. And — we have lived our own lives the way we wanted to live them, and have had a good time so doing.”

For nearly a decade after signing their powers of attorney and writing to the children, Irwin Miller spent significant sums on maintaining several homes in Indiana and Ontario, Canada. In fact, the upkeep costs on three properties were in the millions of dollars during this time period. Irwin made those expenditures despite the fact that he and Xenia didn’t actually own one of the properties — it had been purchased by the son they named as agent in their power of attorney.

When Irwin Miller died in 2004, Xenia Miller was already incapacitated. The two agents in her 1995 power of attorney began to handle her finances, as she had planned. They faced a quandary: should they continue to pay significant sums to maintain properties even though the payments would not benefit Xenia Miller’s estate? Even though she might not be able to enjoy visiting two of the properties any more? Even though the expenditures might actually benefit one of the agents?

Xenia Miller died in 2008. During the four years between Irwin’s and Xenia’s death, the agents under the power of attorney spent over $20 million on keeping the properties going, making improvements and (in the case of the family home) arranging to interest the Indianapolis Museum of Art in moving into the property. Concerned that the expenditures might be challenged, they ultimately filed a petition with the local probate court seeking approval of their expenditures.

One of Irwin and Xenia’s children objected, and a four-day hearing was held on the accounting filed by the agents. Among his allegations: because the agents were acting under a power of attorney, their behavior created a presumption of undue influence requiring that the payments be set aside. The probate judge listened to testimony and arguments from both sides and then approved all the transactions. The judge also ordered the objecting son to pay the legal fees incurred by the agents.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reviewed the holding and agreed that “Xenia and Irwin Miller were extraordinary individuals who did everything in their power to enrich their community, support their family, and better society as a whole.” The appellate judges upheld the probate court approval of the expenditures; they did, however, rule that the contest was not frivolous and so reversed the award of attorneys fees. In Re General Power of Attorney of Miller, September 30, 2010.

The Millers left an extraordinary legacy — on many levels. They provided for their five children. They enriched their community. They created a lasting memory of a wealthy and public-spirited family. Though they probably did not intend to leave a legal precedent that could guide others, they did. By writing what amounted to an “ethical will,” setting out not just financial inheritances but also principles he lived by and hoped would guide his children, Irwin Miller gave us another legacy: he taught us that a power of attorney can be used to carry out the intentions of the signer, even if his purposes are not solely financial.

The Court of Appeals opinion is worth reading, if only for the language of Irwin Miller’s letter to his children. For more on the extraordinary Millers, consider the Christie’s auction notice describing sale of their collection and their impact on the architecture and art communities. Xenia Miller was an extraordinary individual in her own right, with business, art, religious and civil rights credentials that earned her recognition and acclaim.

Father’s Body, Moved Once, Need Not Be Moved Yet Again

APRIL 13, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 36

Is it just us, or is the incidence of family disputes over funeral and burial arrangements on the rise? A recent court case from Indiana makes us think maybe there are still more variations on a theme we thought had long since been played out.

Sherman Warren died in 1970 and was buried in Barbourville, Kentucky. His wife Isabella then moved to Indiana, to live with their youngest daughter. When the daughter died, she was buried in the New Haven, Indiana, cemetery. In 2005, Isabella Warren petitioned the Kentucky courts for authority to disinter her husband’s remains and move them to Indiana.

A year later, four of the couple’s children petitioned the Indiana courts for authorization to once again disinter Mr. Warren’s remains, and to return them to his original burial plot in Kentucky. At the time their mother secured authorization for the first move, the children argued, she was already incompetent, and the Kentucky court order was therefore fraudulently obtained. While that court action was pending Isabella Warren died, and was buried next to her husband and their daughter—in Indiana.

Seven other surviving children of the Warrens’ disagreed. They thought both parents should be left right where they were, and they (plus the cemetery and the Indiana State Department of Health) asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. The judge agreed, ruling that there was no basis on which another move should be authorized.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the result. According to the appellate court, there was no good reason for disinterment of the couple’s bodies. Warren v. IOOF Cemetery.

Maybe the issue is older than we imagined. The Indiana court cites as authority for one of its points a 1904 Pennsylvania case involving a dispute over reinterment (Pettigrew v. Pettigrew). The court might also have cited:

  • A 2007 Pennsylvania divorce case in which the divorcing couple disagreed over whether their son’s ashes should be divided into two separate urns or interred in a single plot as originally agreed upon between the spouses (the court sent the decision back to the divorce judge with some guidance to consider a number of factors. Kulp v. Kulp).
  • A 2008 Mississippi case involving burial of a 10-year-old child whose parents had been locked in custody disputes at the time of her death. Her mother was seriously injured in the crash that killed the child, and so unable to participate in the initial burial decision (In re Spiers).
  • An Idaho case from 2007, in which the father of a minor child had kidnapped the child, moved to Idaho and changed his and his son’s name. Nine years later the son was killed in an auto accident; the mother did not learn of the death for another year. Twenty-three years after learning where her son was buried, the mother sought authorization to move his remains to the state where she lived at the time. The Idaho Supreme Court left standing the trial judge’s ruling authorizing the move (Garcia v. Pinkham).
  • A 2008 Arkansas case involving a dispute between the decedent’s ex-husband and adoptive father, on the one hand, and her mother and brother, on the other. The Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed an order refusing disinterment, and directed the trial court to weigh the factors in favor and opposed to the proposed move (Tozer v. Warden).

Most of the reported cases take the same analytical approach. The remains are treated like property, though a special, emotionally charged kind of property. In deciding whether to permit disinterment or other disruption of the remains, the courts look to the wishes of the decedent (if any), the degree of relationship of each of the contesting parties and their conduct, the length of time since the original interment, and the strength of the respective reasons advanced by the parties.

Though we do seem to be seeing more of these types of disputes, the cases have not been in Arizona. No similar family dispute is reported in the Arizona, though there is one important appellate decision involving some of the same issues. In Tomasits v. Cochise Memory Gardens, a 1986 Court of Appeals decision, the court upheld a trial court verdict of $25,000 against a cemetery after it moved the plaintiff’s parent’s remains without notice. The cemetery had accidentally sold the same plot to two different families; when the other family sued to gain possession of the plot, the cemetery followed the court’s order in that case but without giving notice to the other family.

Two Life Insurance Beneficiary Designations Require Litigation

APRIL 28, 2003 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 43

When people consider “estate planning” they usually are thinking about preparing a will. Sometimes the common conception of estate planning includes preparing a trust as well, and often durable powers of attorney are also part of the plan. But two recent cases demonstrate that “estate planning” is really much more—it includes the titling of assets and beneficiary designations as well. The most carefully-considered estate plan may fail if those other issues are not also dealt with at the same time.

Lori Flanigan was divorced and had two children when she married her second husband, Craig Munson. Ms. Flanigan had two life insurance policies through her work totaling $217,600. Her divorce agreement required her to name the children as beneficiaries on her life insurance, but she had not gotten around to completing a beneficiary designation form when she died in 1995.

Her insurance policies provided that they would be paid to a surviving spouse if she had not designated a beneficiary, and so the proceeds were distributed to Mr. Munson. The children’s grandparents (who took custody after Ms. Flanigan died) then filed a lawsuit to impose a constructive trust on the remaining insurance proceeds and Mr. Munson’s home, since he had used some of the proceeds to pay off his mortgage and other debts.

The trial judge denied the grandparents their requested relief, but the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed that the insurance proceeds should go to the children. It ordered the money transferred to the children’s benefit—eight years and thousands of dollars in legal fees after her death. Flanigan v. Munson, April 3, 2003.

Daniel Lambert was not so lucky. He argued that his mother’s life insurance policy should be part of her estate, and that her will specified that he was to receive a portion of that estate. Unfortunately for him, whatever his mother’s intentions might have been she had named her daughter Suella Southard as beneficiary.

Another sibling, brother Steven Powell, was prepared to testify that their mother had always intended that the life insurance policy should be used to pay the costs of handling her estate and then distributed to the children according to her will. He was not allowed to testify, however, because of a long-standing court rule prohibiting testimony about conversations with deceased persons, the so-called “Dead Man’s Statute.” The Indiana Court of Appeals refused to permit imposition of a constructive trust on the life insurance proceeds. Lambert v. Southard, April 1, 2003.

The moral: “estate planning” requires consideration of beneficiary designations and account titles as well as signing of a will, trust and powers of attorney. Even a carefully-drafted estate plan, including a will, a living trust and both financial and health care powers of attorney, can be altered or frustrated by incorrect (or missing) beneficiary designations, joint tenancies, “payable on death,” “transfer on death” or “in trust for” account titles or other, similar arrangements.

Death of Husband Ends Wife’s Right To Spousal Maintenance

OCTOBER 14, 2002 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 15
Walter and Geraldine Brown had filed for divorce before first Mr. Brown and then Mrs. Brown became incapacitated. When guardianship proceedings were initiated for both of them, the divorce proceeding was simply dismissed.

Mr. and Mrs. Brown lived in Indiana, where the language of guardianship is a little different from Arizona. What Arizonans would call a conservator is referred to as a “guardian of the estate” in Indiana. Two separate banks were appointed as guardians of Mr. and Mrs. Brown’s respective estates.

During the first months of the divorce action Mr. Brown had been ordered to pay spousal maintenance (better known as alimony) to his wife. After the dismissal of the divorce the bank handling Mrs. Brown’s estate asked the probate court to order the bank responsible for Mr. Brown’s estate to continue to make monthly payments. Mr. Brown was ordered to pay $1,600 per month to Mrs. Brown’s guardian.

Mr. Brown had been married before, and he had two sons from that marriage. Mrs. Brown had no children. Mr. Brown’s will left one-third of his personal property and a life estate in one-third of his real estate to his wife, and the balance of his estate to his two sons.

Mr. Brown died shortly after the spousal maintenance award was entered. His sons filed a probate proceeding, divided the estate in accordance with his will and began the process of closing the estate.

At that point Mrs. Brown’s guardian filed a claim against the estate for spousal maintenance that might be due for the rest of her life. After a hearing the probate court agreed and, considering Mrs. Brown’s life expectancy of 13.9 years, set the amount due from Mr. Brown’s estate at just over $160,000.

Mr. Brown’s sons appealed the judgment. Mrs. Brown’s guardian pointed out the Indiana statute (Arizona has a similar law) that allows child support payments to be reduced to a lump-sum claim against a deceased parent’s estate. In these circumstances, argued Mrs. Brown’s guardian, the court should make a similar calculation for spousal maintenance.

The Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed. In reversing the award the Court noted that there is no statute authorizing such a calculation for surviving spouses, and that the state legislature presumably could have created such a claim if legislators thought it necessary. Mrs. Brown’s spousal maintenance award, however, ended with her husband’s death. Estate of Brown v. Estate of Brown, October 2, 2002.

Although Arizona uses “conservator” rather than “guardian of the estate,” the laws of the two states are similar in other respects. The same result should be expected in Arizona, especially where no divorce proceedings have been finalized.

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