APRIL 17, 2006 VOLUME 13, NUMBER 42
June Miller once told the trust officer at her bank that she loved her son Warren Miller but that she didn’t like him very much. That might have been her motivation for making a number of changes to her estate plan in the last few years of her life. After she died her son sued the bank for letting her make those changes.
When Ms. Miller’s husband (and Warren Miller’s father) died in 1995 he left a trust for Ms. Miller’s benefit. When she died, the trust was to go to their only child, Warren Miller. Ms. Miller had significant assets of her own, and she also established a trust with Key Bank in Ohio. At one point her trust gave Warren the right to approve all investment decisions and trust amendments in the event that Ms. Miller became incapacitated. In 2001, without telling Warren, she changed that provision and deleted his power to review trust activities.
At about the same time Ms. Miller exercised her power to withdraw some of her husband’s trust assets, saying that she intended to benefit her grandchildren at her son’s expense by shifting them to her estate. She also made a series of transfers to a caretaker and family, helping them to buy a home and making outright gifts of about $120,000.
Even as those changes were being undertaken, Ms. Miller was first diagnosed as suffering from mild dementia. When she died in 2002, her son Warren sued the bank, the caretaker and her family members.
Mr. Miller argued that the bank had a duty to watch out for Ms. Miller’s finances and to prevent exploitation. He claimed that the caretaker had in fact exploited his mother. He also insisted that the changes to her trust were made at a time when she was already demented, and that the bank was required to let him review those changes before accepting them.
A trial judge dismissed Mr. Miller’s claims against the bank and the caretaker, and the Ohio Court of Appeals agreed. Whatever duty the bank owed was to Ms. Miller and not to her son, said the appellate judges. Furthermore, the mere diagnosis of dementia was not enough to establish that she could not amend her trust, or make gifts to her caretaker. In fact, the gifts were made not from her trust, but from an account which the bank did not control. Mr. Miller had failed to carry his burden of proof to show that the bank had made any mistake, and the case was properly dismissed.
The appellate court decision also approved dismissal of the claims against Ms. Miller’s caretaker and family members. The judges specifically noted that Mr. Miller didn’t seem to have had any questions about his mother’s competence when she paid off his mortgage, arranged a monthly allowance for him and made other large gifts to him. Miller v. KeyBank National Association, April 6, 2006.