Classic Scenarios

The Alzheimer’s Antic

Charlie had been single all his life. He was frugal, almost stingy, and always did the maintenance on his rental properties, himself. He lived alone and had no close friends. As he grew older Charlie became forgetful and had difficulty managing his financial and business affairs. Charlie had the good sense to know that he needed at least one or two square meals a day. He had a favorite local eatery where he became known as a ‘regular’. He was fairly generous with the waitresses who vied to serve him. Usually he sat where Sally would serve him. While no one knew that Charlie had so much value in rental property, Sally saw a good opportunity to befriend and to be benefited by Charlie’s friendship. She talked up the need for Charlie to have a will so that the State would not take everything at his death. One day in the diner they looked up ‘Attorneys’ in the yellow pages and picked one out whose office location was reasonably convenient. Beforehand they had ‘agreed’ that the will would leave Sally ‘in charge’ and that Sally would ‘do whatever Charlie had told Sally to do’. With no close friends and with no ongoing contacts with relatives, Charlie understood that Sally would be only one named in the will, although she would do what he told her to do. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do but he would tell her some day. Sally went with Charlie to the lawyer and a simple will was drawn up leaving everything under Sally’s control. On Charlie’s death the closest living relative – a cousin – attacked the validity of the will. After five years, significant court expenses and lawyer’s fees, the estate was divided equally between Sally and the cousin.

The Dutiful Daughter

Rosie was an only child. She was a lovely girl and made her parents very proud. For a number of years, Mom and Dad ran a board and care home. Rosie helped Mom and Dad with all parts of the ‘Family’ business including overseeing the food service, ordering supplies and handling the books. Mom and Dad told Rosie over and over – stay at home, work with us and one day ‘this will all be yours.’ Time passed and Mom and Dad grew older. Rosie adjusted her life to work in the family business although she married and had her own children. Then the business was sold and the proceeds invested in assets held in the names of Mom and Dad. Rosie went to work in a factory. Then Mom died. Dad who was now in his eighties married a younger woman, a lady about Rosie’s age. While Rosie worked in the factory to earn a living, the new wife and Dad lived off the income from the investments purchased with the proceeds of the sale of the business. After his remarriage dad prepared a new will which left most of the estate to his new wife. and a small bequest to Rosie. Then, one by one, the investments began to be liquidated. The monies were given to the children of the new wife ‘so they could buy their own homes.’ Rosie consulted the office of Norman E. Reitz. A lawsuit was filed to stop the diversion of assets while Dad was still alive. Eventually, even though Dad had died in the meantime, Rosie received 2/3 of the estate and the new wife 1/3..

The First to Find the Body

Two sisters Mable and Sable were the apples of their mother’s eyes. They never had a close relationship with their father because he had been absent from their lives. Mother had been a controlling woman who played one daughter off against the other in order to maintain her dominance. Yet there was a semblance of family order and harmony. A tragic accident brought mother’s life to a close. Mable arrived at her mother’s home for a scheduled visit and found her dead. Mable and her husband seized the opportunity of being first on the scene to thoroughly search the premises. The coroner was called a number of hours after the discovery of the body. Sister Sable was called ten hours after the body was discovered and long after the body had been taken to the funeral home. In the search of mother’s home Mable and her husband had found a will which allowed sister Sable to live in the home rent free for so long as she chose to do so and was able to live independently [Sister Sable was renting an apartment while Mable and her husband already owned and lived in their own home]. Thinking that it was unfair for Sable to be preferred and not wishing to be deprived of her inheritance until Sable decided to move out of the mother’s house or, worse yet, lived to a ripe old age there, Mable and her husband tore up the will and flushed it down the toilet. In the probate of the estate both daughters received equal shares of the mother’s estate outright, including the house. Sable lost her opportunity to live in the mother’s home rent free for the rest of her life.

The Predeceased Spouse

In California if a person dies without a will and has owned real property with a predeceased spouse within the preceding 15 years, the heirs at law of the predeceased spouse have a claim to one-half of the real property. Rochelle claimed to be the daughter of Clarence who was the predeceased spouse of Jessie Lee Anderson. Jessie Lee Anderson and Clarence Anderson had owned a house in Oakland together before Clarence died. On Jessie Lee Anderson’s death Rochelle therefore had a claim to one-half of the value of the house. Orange Pierson had been married to Jessie Lee Anderson 40 years prior to her death but had separated after a few years, had married Daisy and sired a number of children. Orange and Jessie had never obtained a legal divorce. In the probate of the Estate of Jessie Lee Anderson, Orange Pierson stepped forward to claim half of her estate as surviving spouse. Rochelle consulted the office of Norman E. Reitz. We established first that she was the daughter of Clarence Anderson and the Court ruled that it was not equitable [would not be fair] for Orange Pierson to receive any portion of Jessie Lee Anderson’s estate because he had never contributed to the acquisition of the estate and particularly had never contributed towards the purchase of the house. The Alameda County Superior Court awarded one-half of the real property to Rochelle Anderson. The First Appellate District of the Court of Appeals of the State of California upheld the decision.

See Estate of Jessie Lee Anderson,
deceased 60 Cal. App. 4th 436; 70 Cal.
Rptr. 2nd 266 [1997].

The Scheming Niece

Nancy worked as a clerk for a large company. She wasn’t married, had no special hobbies and thus had extra time to pay attention to her Aunt Martha who had no children. Nancy’s mother was deceased and had not been on particularly good terms with Martha but as Martha grew older she needed help and became dependent on the assistance and advice of Nancy. For many years Martha had a will that left her modest estate, consisting of several hundred thousand dollars cash in the bank, equally to all of her nephews and nieces. Since she had no children she wanted to leave all of her estate to her ‘blood’ relatives of the next generation. This remained her plan until her death. As Martha began to rely on her niece Nancy to help her she accepted the idea that if Nancy’s name was listed on the accounts it would be convenient for Nancy to write checks and pay bills. Nancy assured Martha that this was a good idea and that Aunt Martha would ‘still be in control’. Nancy took Martha to the bank and all her accounts were changed to name Nancy as a joint tenant. Then Martha died. Nancy received all the money in the bank as surviving joint tenant. There was no probate of the will. The other nephews and nieces received nothing. Martha’s intent was never carried out because there was no challenge to the titling as being ‘for convenience only’ and not a deliberate action intended to have testamentary consequences. This result could have been avoided if at least one of the other nephews and nieces had contested the transfer of Martha’s estate to Nancy by joint tenancy survivorship.

The Million Dollar Mistress

In the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, Ohio, a strange contest developed for the estate of Lloyd P. Cavett, a local millionaire and philanthropist. In this case, an 89-year-old woman sought to prove that she was having an affair with Mr. Cavett for over fifty years.

Upon his death in 1992, a portion of Mr. Cavett’s estate was left to Rose Bell, a waitress he met in 1946 at his paving company’s annual dinner. In his will, he left her the house they had lived in together, his car and some other personal possessions, and $350,000. Most of his remaining estate – more than $1.5 million – was to be divided between six organizations, including the Salvation Army, Shriner’s Hospital for Children, and the University of Cincinnati.

A dispute over the money erupted when the IRS began an audit of the Cavett Estate in which they questioned the purpose of over $2 million paid to Ms. Bell over the length of their relationship. If the payments were gifts, the estate would be responsible for gift taxes, which would decrease the amount of money to be divided between the charities. The charities pressed Kyle C. Brooks, a lawyer who is one of the executors of the will, to file suit against Ms. Bell, stating that the amounts paid to her were wages, and that she was responsible for the $200,000 in back taxes.

Ms. Bell and her lawyers gathered old love letters, pictures of her and Cavett, and testimony from friends to prove the relationship that existed between them, spending more than $100,000 on legal fees in the process. But, in 1997, the effort paid-off when a state court judge ruled that there had, indeed, been a “longstanding, amicable relationship” between Bell and Cavett. He determined that the payments given to Bell were gifts and that she had not breached her fiduciary duty. The estate appealed the ruling, but it was upheld last year by the Ohio State Court of Appeals. Ms. Bell agreed to pay the IRS $60,000 for various tax claims, thinking that it would be less costly than fighting.

Despite the court’s ruling, the estate still contends that the payments were wages, and is challenging the agency in tax court. If the court rules in the agency’s favor, the estate would be responsible for the $200,000 in taxes. Ms. Bell, having settled with the IRS, will not be liable for any additional taxes, no matter what the court decides. She has already received her bequest from the estate.

The Influential Psychic

A decedent may be of sound mind but yet may be a victim of undue influence. Decedent Dorothy became persuaded that her friend Alta was a psychic who could communicate with Dorothy’s deceased relatives. Not surprisingly, these ‘relatives’ through Alta’s clarevoyence instructed Dorothy to turn over money, stocks and a condominium to Alta. After death the transfers to Alta were invalidated: “…Alta’s control over Dorothy’s mind and her influence so pervaded Dorothy’s thought processes that they completely subverted her will to the wishes and domination of Alta, and this imposition continued from the moment Dorothy was convinced Alta was a true psychic and medium to immediately before her death.” The evidence of undue influence was clear, even though it was circumstantial.

Estate of Baker, 131 Cal. App. 3d 471, 482 (1982)