Posts Tagged ‘New Hampshire Supreme Court’

Lawyer Suspended for Bad Special Needs Trust Advice

MAY 16, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 18
Sometimes in our zeal to help solve problems we lawyers can get carried away. We are constrained by ethical rules to avoid conflicts of interest. We also have to act competently. In a case involving an injured young man, a special needs trust and the state’s Medicaid claim against the trust, New Hampshire lawyer Paul Bruzga fell short.

Mr. Bruzga’s problems started with a tragedy that had nothing to do with him. George Doherty was injured, and in a coma. His brother Steven started a guardianship action. George and Steven’s sister didn’t think Steven was the right person to be appointed, and she objected. The court appointed Mr. Bruzga as attorney for George Doherty, to protect his interests in the contested guardianship.

Mr. Bruzga learned that Steven Doherty had applied for Medicaid coverage for his brother’s substantial medical bills. He pointed out to Mr. Doherty that his brother would not be eligible for Medicaid unless a special needs trust was established to handle all of George Doherty’s money. To this point, it appears that Mr. Bruzga’s advice — and his behavior as a lawyer — was fine. But then he took the first of several wrong steps.

When Steven Doherty asked for help setting up a special needs trust for his brother, Mr. Bruzga went ahead and drafted the document and filed it with the court for approval. Later he insisted that he was doing this as attorney for George Doherty, the injured client. He also negotiated a settlement between George Doherty’s brother Steven and their sister, and he insisted that this, too, was done as lawyer for George Doherty — but his behavior was easy to challenge when he signed the court pleadings as Steven Doherty’s attorney.

George Doherty, the injured brother and beneficiary of a newly-minted special needs trust, unfortunately died a few months later. Under the terms of the special needs trust his funds would first have to be used to pay back the New Hampshire Medicaid program for care he had received. But up to that point, neither Mr. Bruzga nor Mr. Doherty had even told the Medicaid agency about the special needs trust.

Several months later, when Medicaid had not requested repayment from the trust, Mr. Bruzga advised Mr. Doherty that he could just write checks from the trust to himself and his sister. Of course, the reason Medicaid had not sent a bill might have been related to the fact that no one had ever told them the trust existed — or, indeed, even that George Doherty had died.

Coincidentally or not, the state Medicaid agency had just begun to ask questions as the final trust checks were being written. A few days before advising Mr. Doherty to distribute the remaining trust assets to himself and his sister, Mr. Bruzga had heard from a Medicaid fraud investigator, who left a message expressing his concern that there was a special needs trust they had never heard about. Mr. Bruzga left a voice message for the investigator, and shortly thereafter counseled Mr. Doherty to close out the trust.

Within a two-month period, Mr. Bruzga exchanged messages with the Medicaid investigator, filed a final accounting with the court on behalf of Mr. Doherty, and advised Mr. Doherty to tell the court that Medicaid had not filed a request for repayment and that his final distributions should be approved. Then the Medicaid investigator sent a demand for repayment to Steven Doherty and his sister, noting that the distributions should never have been made. Then the sister filed a complaint with the New Hampshire Attorney Discipline Office, which investigated Mr. Bruzga’s behavior.

Throughout all of these periods, Mr. Bruzga spoke with Steven Doherty regularly and billed him monthly for his work. He signed some pleadings indicating he represented Mr. Doherty, even though he had originally been appointed by the court as the attorney for George Doherty, the injured brother. Though he sometimes indicated that he did not think he represented Steven Doherty, he gave him specific and direct advice at each turn in the case.

The Attorney Discipline Office decided that Mr. Bruzga had a serious conflict of interest in trying to represent Steven Doherty as his brother’s guardian and as trustee, while he was really supposed to be the brother’s lawyer. The Office also decided that Mr. Bruzga had simply given bad advice — legal advice that was clearly wrong — to Mr. Doherty.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed. Lawyers are supposed to avoid conflicts of interest. They are also supposed to be competent. The Court decided that Mr. Bruzga had failed on both counts. Because he “knowingly rendered incompetent advice,” his license to practice law was suspended for six months. Bruzga’s Case, May 12, 2011.

Interestingly, the court never did get around to deciding what the appropriate sanction might be for Mr. Bruzga’s failure to recognize or avoid the conflict of interest. Though failure to act competently might ordinarily result in just a public reprimand, said the justices, his failure was so much worse that the suspension was appropriate — and so they did not need to decide what (presumably lesser) sanction might have been in order for the conflict of interest. It didn’t help Mr. Bruzga’s case that he had been in trouble with the attorney discipline process twice before in his 33-year legal career.

How much money was at issue? Not much. The total value of the special needs trust was about $50,000 and the Medicaid claim was about $74,000. It is hard to figure out what motivated Mr. Bruzga to give such breathtakingly bad legal advice.

If You Were the Probate Judge, What Would You Decide?

MAY 9, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 17
Let us give you some insight into how hard it can be to figure out how to interpret estate planning documents. At the same time we hope to explain why it is important to keep your own estate plan up to date.

Timothy M. Donovan was a successful New Hampshire businessman. Beginning in the 1980s he started his own company, Optimum Manufacturing, and built it into a leading manufacturer of optical housing, mirror blanks and satellite components.

At age 52, Mr. Donovan was married for the second time. He had no children from either marriage, but he had close relationships with his mother, his brothers and a niece and nephew.

In 2005 he signed a will and a living trust. The terms of his will were straightforward: he left all of his personal property, real estate — almost everything he owned — to his wife. There was one huge exception, however: he left his stock in Optimum Manufacturing, the real estate on which the plant was located, and any other interest in Optimum to his living trust.

Apparently Mr. Donovan had wrestled with what to do about the company he had built. His trust included detailed provisions about what was to happen to Optimum Manufacturing. His trustee was to continue to run the business for a short time, and then arrange for its sale. If possible, it was to be sold to employees of the company. If not, it was to be put on the market. Once the company was sold, the proceeds were to be divided into percentages. Forty-five percent would go to his wife, twenty-five percent to his mother, twenty percent was to be divided among his brothers, niece and nephew, and ten percent would go to the trustee. After distributing the Optimum sale proceeds in those percentages, everything else in the trust was to go to his wife.

So far, there is nothing extraordinary about Mr. Donovan’s estate plan, and it looks like it would be easy to understand and implement. But in 2008, things changed. Mr. Donovan sold his company to Corning Specialty Materials, a subsidiary  of the giant Corning, Inc. The sales price: $15 million. The proceeds from the sale went into Mr. Donovan’s name individually, and not to his living trust.

Just under a year later Mr. Donovan (who was also an avid and accomplished pilot) died, tragically, in a glider crash. He had not updated his estate plan, and so questions now arose about what should happen to proceeds from the sale of Optimum Manufacturing.

You be the probate judge for a moment. Assume for the sake of your ruling that all the Optimum proceeds were held in one or more identifiable accounts, and that they had not been commingled with other funds (we don’t know that to be true, but let’s keep the legal issues simple for a moment). Assume, also, that Mr. Donovan’s wife’s name has not been put on those accounts. Tell us, judge: what happens to the $15 million?

You want some precedent? How about the recent case of Estate of Donovan, decided on April 28, 2011, by the New Hampshire Supreme Court? It would be hard to find anything more clearly on point.

The legal term for what happened in Mr. Donovan’s case is ademption. When property is sold, lost or no longer part of the estate at death, it is said to be “adeemed,” and a specific bequest of that property therefore fails.

In some circumstances the identifiable proceeds from a sale of specifically named property must be distributed as if the original gift still operated. That can be true when the “ademption” is involuntary, for instance — such as when the state condemns a parcel of property that has been listed in a will and the proceeds from that condemnation are still held in a separate account. But that was not the situation in Mr. Donovan’s case.

The problem is made slightly more interesting by the fact that Mr. Donovan had signed both a will and a trust. Since the sale proceeds were still in his name, they were governed by the will — which said that  everything but Optimum Manufacturing was to go to his wife. That was what the probate judge decided, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed.

Imagine, though, that Mr. Donovan had put the sale proceeds into an account titled in his trust’s name. Would the result have been any different? No, said the Supreme Court. His trust also left everything but Optimum stock to his wife, and the ademption principles would apply to the trust just as they did to Mr. Donovan’s will and estate.

There is no grade, nor any reward, for correct answers, but how did you do as a probate judge?

 

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