Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) actions in which probate venues and/or probate instruments (wills, trusts, guardianships or powers of attorneys) are used to loot assets of the dead, disabled or incapacitated are becoming increasingly common. A Manhattan trial is underway in which Anthony Marshall, son of New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, and estate planning attorney Francis Morrissey, Jr., face charges of using undue influence and other fraudulent activities to divert more than $100 million of Astor’s estate to Marshall and away from long-standing charitable beneficiaries. Astor was 105 when she died and is alleged to have signed codicils within her last years contradicting prior well-known distribution intentions. The trial will soon likely shift to Morrissey’s role in generating and executing these documents as well as his questionable estate administration history.
Criminal prosecutions of estate theft are rare. This trial is additionally noteworthy as Americans at all economic levels are being similarly targeted. An estate of $500,000 to $1 million can be especially appealing. Traditional retirement havens like Florida, California and Arizona are magnets for perpetrators seeking markets rich in potential IRA targets. Texas, now the nation’s #2 retirement destination, provides new opportunity – for retirees and legal predators.
The legal industry routinely acts as if IRA efforts don’t exist or that incidence rates are exaggerated. Tracking these cases is difficult as they often quietly happen in courtrooms or law offices plus take on various forms from outright looting to creating contrived disputes so billable hours can be charged against an estate. Documented and anecdotal accounts give reason to believe that for every case reported, many more are silently occurring. While the legal industry outwardly downplays IRA actions, a review of Continuing Legal Education topics indicates significant internal offerings on attorney protection and estates.
In September 2008, Terry Stork, a disbarred Texas attorney, was sentenced to 15 years in jail after pleading guilty to three counts of estate theft. Travis County ADA Patty Robertson made a compelling presentation on Stork’s 25+ years of criminal activities and professional misconduct. The judge and defense attorney openly lamented the need for the sentencing yet, as the legal industry dislikes exposure of its shortcomings, no compassion was directed toward Stork’s betrayed clients or to their heirs – some of whom spent vast amounts of time and money seeking justice and whose work undoing the harm continues on.
“Proper estate planning” is touted as a protective measure, but in today’s legal climate, the security advertised is overrated. One doesn’t need Brooke Astor wealth to become a target. Caution is advised when relocating to a retirement community as such locales can be attractive to more than seniors. Upon becoming an IRA victim, competent, honest legal representation can be difficult to attain as all attorneys are not corrupt, but too few will aggressively stand up against the predators in their industry (or your community). Asset theft via the probate system is a reality and an issue about which the silence must be broken.