Posts Tagged ‘Missouri Court of Appeals’

Avoiding Probate — A Good Idea, But Not Always Effective

AUGUST 25, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 30

Some people really don’t like city traffic, and will go out of their way to get on the freeway whenever possible. Of course, that approach can backfire — freeway traffic is sometimes snarled, and sometimes in unpredictable ways (and at unpredictable times). Avoidance of surface traffic can be a good practice, but of course isn’t itself the end goal; the real point is to get where you’re going quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of frustration along the way.

We’ve been looking for a good metaphor to explain our view of “probate”, that vilified court process that often (though much less often than you probably think) has to be undertaken upon a family member’s death. Maybe the freeway/city street metaphor isn’t perfect, but we think it might be suggestive of the real goal. You probably want to make administration of your estate as simple as possible, while minimizing cost and aggravation for your family. You also want your wishes carried out, and you might add “no squabbling” to your list of goals. Those are your goals; “avoid probate” is no more the goal than “get on the freeway” is a goal in driving.

Why the extended traffic metaphor? Because of a case we read this month from the Missouri Court of Appeals. We thought it was a good case study in how probate avoidance sometimes is ineffective (and, in the reported case, probably even drove up the cost and complication).

Susan McCauley (not her real name) had a modest estate. In fact, her debts apparently exceeded the value of her assets. She had three children, a home, a commercial rental property, a brokerage account and three bank accounts. She and her late husband had borrowed money against the commercial property and also had a signature loan with the bank; the amount of those two loans exceeded the value of the property itself.

Whether avoidance of probate was Susan’s primary goal or not, she took several steps to accomplish that result. She made her bank accounts “payable on death” to her three children. She put a “transfer on death” titling on her brokerage account, again naming her three children. She executed beneficiary deeds naming the children as beneficiaries for all of her real estate (Missouri, like Arizona, is one of the minority of states that recognize a “beneficiary deed” or “revocable transfer on death deed” on real estate).

When Susan died in 2008, her son filed a simplified probate proceeding allowed under Missouri law, in which he recited that her probate assets consisted only of her personal property with a value of about $16,000. Since that amount was well under the Missouri limit of $40,000, he sought an order allowing transfer of all of her remaining personal property to the three children.

Not so fast, argued the bank which held Susan’s two notes. The bank claimed that Susan owed over $370,000, and asked the probate court to order her son to bring all of those non-probate transfers (the beneficiary deeds, the POD and TOD accounts) back into the probate proceeding to satisfy their claim. Meanwhile, the bank went ahead and foreclosed on the one property it had most direct control over — the commercial real estate, which secured one of its loans.

After sale of the rental building, the bank’s remaining claim was a little over $164,000. It continued to insist that it should be able to get her house, bank and brokerage accounts to defray the remaining debt.

Susan’s son explained to the probate court that there really hadn’t been all that much left in her estate. After payment of about $22,000 in other debts (presumably, but not clearly, including her final medical and funeral/burial expenses), the three children had split the house and about $60,000 — including about $30,000 in equity in Susan’s house. The bank asked for judgment against the three children for the $60,000.

The probate court disagreed about the equity in the house, noting that the children had borrowed $50,000 against the house in order to pay those last expenses and that values were lower than the bank thought (remember that all this was taking place in 2008/2009). It ordered that the house be listed and sold, and that any net proceeds after repayment of the loan taken out after Susan’s death should be given to the bank. The probate court also removed Susan’s son as personal representative and appointed a new, neutral personal representative.

The bank appealed, arguing that (a) the probate court should have entered a judgment against Susan’s children and ordered them to repay the estate, rather than ordering sale of the house for whatever it might raise, and (b) the proper valuation of damages should be based on the value of the house on the date it was transferred (that is, on the date of Susan’s death), not months later as property values slid. The Missouri Court of Appeals agreed on both points.

The result: the probate court was directed to calculate and enter a judgment against Susan’s three children for the amount they received (up to the bank’s debt, which clearly exceeded any valuation of the amount they received). Rather than ordering sale of the house and distribution of any net proceeds, the children would be liable for the value of everything they got — and that valuation would be as of the date of their mother’s death, not based on what they held at the time of resolution. Merriott v. Merriott, August 19, 2014.

Would the same result have occurred if Susan had lived and died in Arizona? Probably. Missouri’s statutes on bringing assets back into an estate to satisfy creditors are very similar.

In hindsight, Susan would have made a better plan by simply writing a will leaving her estate to her three children and keeping all of her assets in her name alone. Her son could have been appointed personal representative, listed her home and sold it for what it would have actually fetched on the market, identified the priority of claims against her estate (paying funeral and last-illness expenses first, plus his own — and his lawyer’s — fees for administration) and simply paid any remaining balance to the bank (and other creditors, if there were any). He (and his siblings) would not have borne the risk of a falling real estate market, would not have incurred additional administrative expenses, would not have suffered the indignity of being removed as personal representative of his mother’s estate, and would not have had a money judgment leveled against him (and his siblings). But sometimes you don’t know what traffic is going to look like until you’re already on the on-ramp.

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Estate Planning: It Shouldn’t Be About the Lawyers

AUGUST 22, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 30
Of course it usually makes sense to place your estate planning wishes in the hands of your lawyer to make sure documents are correctly drawn and your wishes carried out. Lawyers can be very protective of what they perceive as their clients’ wishes and best interests, and sometimes that can even get in the way. Take, for instance, the will and trust of Missouri resident William R. Knichel.

Mr. Knichel had two grown children. He also had a 20-year relationship with Anita Madsen. In 2002, shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he signed a new will and powers of attorney. He named his children as his agents and left his entire estate to the two of them.

At about the same time Ms. Madsen began living with — and taking care of — Mr. Knichel. Two years later, he decided that he wanted to put her in charge of his finances and leave a significant portion of his estate to her. He transferred his home and one bank account into joint tenancy with her, and named her as beneficiary on his life insurance policy.

In 2004, Mr. Knichel and Ms. Madsen made an appointment with St. Louis attorney Charles Amen, of the law firm Purcell & Amen. Mr. Amen prepared a new will and powers of attorney, and a living trust. These documents named Ms. Madsen as personal representative, agent and trustee. The trust was intended to hold Mr. Knichel’s retirement assets, and to distribute them in three equal shares to his two children and Ms. Madsen.

One unusual provision in the trust document: Mr. Amen himself was named as “special co-trustee” with some specific powers. He was to make final decisions about distributions among the beneficiaries, to decide whether any beneficiaries could challenge Ms. Madsen’s administration or distribution decisions, and act as arbitrator if any disputes did arise. Then Mr. Amen and Ms. Madsen began the process of transferring Mr. Knichel’s retirement assets into the trust.

Among the accounts they tried to transfer to the trust was an IRA held at UBS Financial. For reasons not spelled out in the reported court opinion, UBS declined to change the IRA — even though Mr. Amen and Ms. Madsen made several attempts. When Mr. Knichel died a few months later, his children were still named as beneficiaries, rather than the trust.

Mr. Amen continued to work with Ms. Madsen to try to get UBS to change the beneficiary designation, but unsuccessfully. Ultimately UBS distributed the IRA account to the two children. Mr. Amen advised Ms. Madsen to simply make an equivalent distribution from the other trust assets to herself. She did that, and also paid herself a $6,000 fee as trustee and Mr. Amen’s fees of $2,400 for his representation of her as trustee.

In the three years after Mr. Knichel’s death, his children regularly requested a full accounting from Ms. Madsen and Mr. Amen. They did not receive complete information and so, in 2007, they filed suit against Ms. Madsen and Mr. Amen. They specifically sought removal of Mr. Amen and his firm as special co-trustee, arguing that there were multiple conflicts of interest in acting in that capacity while also representing Ms. Madsen, and that Mr. Amen had breached a fiduciary duty to treat the trust’s beneficiaries impartially.

After the trial judge denied Mr. Amen’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, he withdrew as attorney form Ms. Madsen individually and as trustee. As a result of the proceedings, the court ultimately removed Ms. Madsen as trustee and Mr. Amen and his firm as special co-trustee, froze the trust’s assets and ordered Ms. Madsen to return distributions she had made to herself, her fees and the fees she had paid Mr. Amen. The Judge specifically found that Mr. Amen had breached his fiduciary duties as special co-trustee, because he had not been impartial to the three beneficiaries in his advice and representation of Ms. Madsen.

Mr. Amen appealed the finding. The Missouri Court of Appeals summarily dismissed his appeal, finding that he was not an “interested person” within the meaning of Missouri’s version of the Uniform Trust Code. He did not have a property right in (or a claim against) the trust itself, according to the appellate judges. Consequently, he had no standing to claim that the trial judge had made a mistake.

The Court of Appeals noted that this was not the first case they had heard in which members of Mr. Amen’s firm had named the firm as “special co-trustee.” In an earlier case, Mr. Amen’s partner had named the firm as “special co-trustee” in a trust for a man who was at the time the subject of a guardianship proceeding. When that man’s children dismissed their guardianship petition, Mr. Amen’s partner attempted to appeal the dismissal; the appellate court ruled in that case that he lacked standing to bring the appeal.

Though the circumstances and the legal arguments were somewhat different, the result was the same — dismissal of the appeal. The appellate court was equally unimpressed, incidentally, by Mr. Amen’s other argument — that he would be required to report the finding of breach of fiduciary duty to professional licensing boards and might get in trouble with them, too. In Matter of Knichel, August 16, 2011.

The Knichel case raises a legal question separate from Mr. Amen’s standing to appeal the finding that he breached his fiduciary duty. What is a “special co-trustee,” and what are the duties and powers of such a position?

Under Arizona’s version of the Uniform Trust Code (which is not identical to Missouri’s), the position spelled out in Mr. Amen’s trust would probably be analogous to a “trust protector,” at least to the extent that Mr. Amen’s “special co-trustee” could change the respective shares of beneficiaries. Arizona’s legislative decision to expressly limit any fiduciary duty to beneficiaries might complicate that designation and the analysis of a similar case if one were to arise in the Arizona courts.

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Joint Tenancy Does Not Always Mean Equal Ownership

NOVEMBER 8, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 35
Elder law attorneys often see some version of the same story. Parents put child’s name on the deed to their home “just in case.” Dispute between parents and child breaks out when child asserts ownership interest. Sometimes litigation ensues. Child claims that joint ownership of the home means just that — the child owns an interest. The parents claim that putting the child’s name on the deed was just a convenience, or an estate planning device, or a mistake.

The resolution of the recurring story will depend very heavily on individual facts. It should be easy to see that evidence of conversations between the parents and child will tip the result one way or the other, and that written agreements will be even more persuasive than remembered conversations. Again and again, though, we see cases where family members just couldn’t imagine having disagreements in the future. Sometimes the analysis is complicated by the family’s failure to be clear about complicated legal relationships from the outset.

A good illustration of this repeating story is reported in a Missouri appellate case from a few weeks ago. Evan and Evelyn Hoit, who had lived on a Kansas farm for nearly four decades, decided to move closer to their two daughters in Kearney, Missouri. They told Mrs. Hoit’s son (from a prior marriage), Brent Rankin; he and his wife thought it might be a good idea to move closer to family, too. The Rankins suggested that the Hoits could look for a home in Kearney for them, too.

The Rankins had been pre-qualified for a loan, and had hired a real estate agent to find them some likely candidates. They asked the Hoits to check out a couple of the best candidates. The Hoits did, but also went looking for their own place; they found a house that they thought would be perfect for them, and told the Rankins they were going to buy it. The Hoits offered to let the Rankins live in the lower level, but Mrs. Hoit told her son that they intended to buy the house in any event.

The Rankins thought the house would work for them, too; they suggested that the Hoits buy it and let them live there. The Hoits put down 25% of the purchase price. The Rankins agreed to borrow the remainder, since they had pre-qualified for a loan and the Hoit’s farm had not yet sold. No one discussed exactly how the title would be taken, though everyone understood that when the Hoits died the Rankins would inherit the house. Mrs. Hoit later explained that she had intended to leave her other assets — all the couple’s cash and investments — to their two daughters.

Although the couples did not explicitly discuss the title arrangements, the lender apparently made a decision that it would be important to get all four names on the property (and the loan). The result: the four individuals ended up owning the property as joint tenants with right of survivorship.

When the Hoit farm in Kansas sold two months later, they paid off the mortgage with the proceeds. But when they tried to move into the house, they found that the Rankins had taken over one upstairs room that Mrs. Hoit had expressly reserved for her piano, and that there was little space for them to put the rest of their furniture. The family relationships began to fray almost immediately.

Within a few months the Hoits were demanding that the Rankins move out of the house. The Rankins refused, claiming that they owned the property. The Hoits ended up buying another house in Kearney and moving into it. Then they filed a lawsuit asking the courts to decide how much of the first home belonged to them, and how much (if any) to the Rankins.

The trial judge ruled that the Hoits had paid almost the entire cost of purchasing and maintaining the home — their contribution had been $192,734.26, as compared to the $2,757.48 paid by the Rankins. He awarded the home to the Hoits and imposed a lien against it in favor of the Rankins for their small contribution. The Rankins appealed, arguing that they owned half of the home.

The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court holding. It noted that, though there is a presumption of equal ownership in joint tenancy titling, that presumption can be overcome by showing the unequal contributions of the joint owners. The appellate court expressly noted that one of the choices available to the Hoits would have been a “beneficiary deed” (recognized in Missouri, as in Arizona and about a dozen other states), but that the evidence showed that the choice of deed was made not by the Hoits but by the lender. Hoit v. Rankin, September 28, 2010.

Though both the trial judge and the appellate court agreed that the evidence was clear that the Hoits did not intend to make a present gift of the property, that successful (for them) outcome may be beside the point. This family, which once got along well enough to experiment with a shared living arrangement, has now spent thousands of dollars in legal fees and two years in the courts battling over what they intended when they started their experiment. Would they have gotten a happier result if one or both couples had talked with a lawyer in advance, and considered what might happen if things didn’t work out as well as they hoped?

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Guardian Allowed to Restrict Visitors, Telephone and Mail

NOVEMBER 23, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 62

Being appointed as guardian for another person can be a daunting challenge. The responsibility is enormous, and most guardians get little or no training other than the “on-the-job” type. The stakes — a human life — are enormous.

What is the proper goal for a guardian? Is it to ensure the safety of the ward? To interfere in the life of the ward as little as possible? To protect the ward’s autonomy and give him or her wide latitude? To carry out the ward’s wishes as expressed before his or her incapacity? In a word, yes — even though all of those goals may conflict with one another. No easy task.

Although the courts are supposed to resolve the tension between these competing goals, in the real (legal) world that often does not happen. Instead, the legal dispute can sometimes devolve into a determination of whether the guardian’s decision is so demonstrably wrong, or so clearly motivated by the guardian’s own hopes and wishes, that the guardian should be removed altogether. Courts are not often good at training and guiding guardians.

Consider the recent Missouri Court of Appeals case of In re Estate of Posey v. Bergin (November 3, 2009), as it brings the conflict into clear relief. The ward in that case had been found to be incapacitated in 2003, based on his serious and long-term alcohol abuse. His daughter had been appointed as his guardian.

As guardian, the daughter decided that her father’s old drinking buddy was not a good influence. She also worried that his sister’s calls agitated him. She had placed her father in a residential setting and restricted his access to alcohol. She also ordered that no one could visit, or even telephone, without her approval, and she monitored his mail.

Her father objected that he should not be so restricted. He maintained that he was no longer incapacitated (he no longer had access to alcohol). He argued that he didn’t need a guardian at all, but that if he did someone else should be appointed.

The probate court disagreed with him, and left his daughter in place as his guardian. The state Court of Appeals upheld that decision. But neither decision was about whether the daughter was a good guardian, or whether she was handling her father’s placement, care and visiting rights appropriately. Instead, the case hinged on whether her behavior was so manifestly wrong that she should be removed as guardian. Both courts ruled that she should not.

In fact, the father had tried to remove his daughter as guardian in an earlier proceeding, as well. When the court denied his 2004 petition, his daughter apparently interpreted that to mean that all of her decisions had been approved by the judicial system.

It is easy for us, at this distance (geographic and emotional), to criticize the guardian’s decisions and the court’s framing of the legal question. Perhaps we could be more constructive by suggesting a few ideas, for the guardian in this case and for guardians generally:

  • The ward’s wishes, even though not necessarily in his own best interests, should be considered. That does not mean that he must be put in charge of his own decisions, but that his personal preferences should be part of the mix. His desire to maintain contact with his sister and with his long-time friends should be recognized, and efforts made to make the contacts constructive.
  • A child acting as guardian for his or her own parents is almost always torn by competing emotions. It is difficult to reverse the usual roles, and for a child to effectively become parent to his or her own parents. That reality should be confronted, and care taken not to let the role-reversal get in the way. Even a well-adusted guardian might benefit from counseling to look closely at the effects of the role reversal.
  • If it is truly necessary to restrict visits and access, it should be a restriction rather than a prohibition. Conversations with the other individuals might be one way to make sure they understand the importance of positive contacts and the need to avoid undermining the ward’s condition and/or recovery. If the guardian finds that he or she is unable to have a reasonable conversation with the other individual’s in the ward’s life, the response should be to look for a suitable intermediary rather than to eliminate or unduly restrict the contact.
  • Safety is important, as is recovery. So is the ward’s happiness and peace of mind. Striking a balance is challenging, but essential.
  • Once a proper balance is found, it will probably require constant adjustment.

Should the Missouri courts have terminated the guardianship, or removed the guardian? Probably not — and in any case the judges at both levels decided that was not the appropriate decision. That does not necessarily mean that the guardian was doing the best job possible, and it would be a mistake to read the Missouri case as supporting the wisdom of restricting a ward’s visitors and outside contacts. The real challenge for the guardian in that case will be to avoid reading the decision as endorsement of all that has transpired, and instead see it as validation of the authority — but not the necessity — of the guardian’s actions. The challenge for guardians everywhere is to balance the competing interests, desires, histories and circumstances in a most difficult job, and to be willing to adapt to new information and changing situations with humanity, grace and flexibility.

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Guardian Not Personally Liable For Alleged Lack of “Due Care”

APRIL 27, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 38

Who has the obligation to get a proper Medicaid application filed for someone in a nursing home? Can the nursing home resident’s children, spouse, guardian or conservator be forced to pay for care after the patient’s money has run out but before the state Medicaid agency receives the application paperwork in proper order?

The usual answer to that question is a simple “no.” There are exceptions — a spouse may have an obligation of support, for instance, or a child may have separately promised the nursing home that the bills will be covered. The way this question most frequently comes up, though, is when a guardian or a child (and they may sometimes be the same person, though in today’s illustration the guardian was a public agency) has signed the facility’s admission documents but has not followed through with getting Medicaid eligibility established promptly.

That was essentially what happened with Eloise Selby, who resided at Arbor View Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in St. Joseph, Missouri. Bonnie Sue Lawson, who was the Buchanan County Public Administrator, was appointed as Ms. Selby’s guardian in 2004. A Medicaid application was already pending, but the agency did not have the paperwork necessary to determine the value of two small life insurance policies owned by Ms. Selby. Her new guardian promised to get the missing forms filed.

A month later, with no paperwork in sight, the Medicaid agency denied coverage. A second application filed a month after that included the missing forms, but Ms. Selby was again denied benefits — this time because the value of the two policies exceeded the maximum permissible amount. Yet another month later, another application was filed — and denied for the same reason.

The essential problem with the application became clear at that point: someone would need to cash in the policies, and Ms. Lawson was guardian of the person but not conservator of Ms. Selby’s estate. A conservatorship proceeding was filed, the funds collected, and the final, successful Medicaid application filed a year after the initial involvement of the Public Administrator’s office.

The nursing home then sued the guardian for the fees (and legal costs) it had not collected from Ms. Selby while the failed Medicaid applications were pending. The home’s argument: while Ms. Lawson would not be personally liable for her ward’s nursing home costs in most cases, in this case she had failed to use “due care” in fulfilling her duties.

The trial court agreed, and entered a judgment in favor of the nursing home (and against the Public Administrator) for $16,779.65 — the difference between what the nursing home had collected from Ms. Selby’s income and what it would have collected. The judge also assessed attorney’s fees and costs of $6,597.00 against the Public Administrator.

The Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed, and reversed the finding in favor of the nursing home. In  the appellate court’s analysis, Ms. Lawson’s liability for Ms. Selby’s debts was limited to the money in Ms. Selby’s name. Although the admission contract included specific language requiring the Public Administrator to use “due care,” it also included a provision that dealt directly with the possibility of Medicaid eligibility denial. That more specific section limited the facility’s rights to receiving payment from Ms. Selby’s funds; the court agreed with Ms. Lawson that the specific section controlled over the more general provision. Five Star Quality Care v. Lawson, April 7, 2009.

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‘Til The Cows Come Home—A Parental Exploitation Story

APRIL 14, 2008  VOLUME 15, NUMBER 42

We see the same sad story time and again. Sometimes there are small variations, but it almost always starts the same way. Aging parents (or other relatives) need assistance with their finances and their care. As those needs increase, family members begin — often with the very best of intentions — to provide assistance but end up taking advantage. The transition from loving support to financial exploitation is tragic and common.

At least that’s the way we’d like to think Gary and Sheila Taylor of Belton, Missouri, started out. When Mr. Taylor’s father sold his home in Pennsylvania and moved in with his son and daughter-in-law, it looks like everyone thought they would be providing care for him in their home. That was what the son apparently told his two sisters, anyway.

The elder Mr. Taylor had lived in Pennsylvania all his life. His second wife became seriously ill in 1997, and daughter-in-law Sheila Taylor traveled to his home to help out. He signed a new power of attorney naming Sheila as his agent. He added her name to two of his bank accounts in Pennsylvania. When his wife died, he and his son and daughter-in-law agreed it would be better if he moved to Missouri with them.

A few months later, bank accounts in Missouri bore father, son and daughter-in-law’s names. Gary and his father sent $10,000 checks to each of Gary’s sisters, with a note indicating that Mr. Taylor was trying to avoid the probate process. Then the elder Mr. Taylor suffered a stroke, and his care needs escalated.

While Mr. Taylor was still recuperating from his stroke, Sheila wrote a $7,100 check to pay off a credit card in her and Gary’s name. Then she and Gary decided to purchase a farm property and to build a new house on the property that would allow Mr. Taylor to move in. Mr. Taylor’s money paid for the property and construction — and also for a tractor, a utility vehicle and a herd of cows. All were in Gary and Sheila’s names, with no mention of Mr. Taylor’s contribution. Not too long thereafter, Gary and Sheila Taylor did some ironic estate planning of their own, transferring “their” assets into a revocable living trust.

Mr. Taylor ended up living on the farm he had purchased for about six months before going to a nursing home. When he died a few months later, there were no assets left in his name to go through the probate process. Almost $400,000 of money that had once belonged to him had gone into the farm, house, equipment and cows titled in Gary and Sheila’s revocable living trust. Mr. Taylor’s daughters sued, and argued that they should be entitled to a portion of the farm — and even of the cattle herd.

The Missouri Court of Appeals agreed. The appellate judges explained the legal notion of a “constructive trust”—and then ordered that the trial court conduct a new hearing to determine how much of the property belonged to Mr. Taylor’s daughters. Taylor-McDonald vs. Taylor, January 10, 2008.

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