Trusts and Estates

Looting a Loved One's Estate

Update 12/23/2009:

Anthony Marshall  has been found guilty of 14 of the 15 counts against him. Marshall was convicted in October of the most serious charges - first-degree grand larceny and scheming to defraud. He faces a minimum of one to three years, or as much as eight to 25 years in state prison. Marshall's former attorney, Francis Morrissey, was also convicted of five counts relating to the case, including forgery and scheming to defraud Astor.

Original Article:

It's sad, but often all too true. A person who's ill or elderly is taken advantage of by someone she trusts. He takes his loved one's belongings for his personal use, completely ignoring his loved one's wishes that she expressed in her last will and testament. This is what happened recently when Anthony Marshall looted his mother's estate.

Marshall's Case

Anthony Marshall is a former US ambassador and an award winning Broadway producer. His mother, Brooke Astor, was well-known and much loved socialite and philanthropist in New York City. She suffered from Alzheimer's for several years before she died. At the time of her death in August of 2007 she was worth about $200 million. According to the criminal charges filed against Marshall and his attorney-friend Francis Morrissey, Astor's will directed that $60 million of her fortune be given to her favorite charities after she died. That is, until Marshall and Morrissey interfered.

Marshall stole artwork from Astor's home and sold it. He also paid himself $1 million for acting as Astor's financial adviser, and used her cash to buy a yacht and pay the captain's salary. It gets worse. Marshall either had Astor sign changes to her will (called "codicils"), or forged her signature on at least one, so that the $60 million earmarked for charity could be disposed of as Marshall saw fit. The prosecution claimed that Marshall's motivation was to make sure that his wife, Charlene Marshall, whom Astor didn't like, would get the $60 million after Marshall died.

Taking Advantage

Marshall's tactics are clear examples of looting an estate and taking advantage of an ill and elderly loved one. And, as in many of these cases, the motivation is greed. Marshall was already a wealthy man, and his mother's will, if left untouched, gave him plenty of money. But he wanted - and took - more.

Greed and other motivations often leads to a less obvious way to cheat an estate. Undue influence is when someone abuses the trust he has with another person to influence that person's decisions, especially when it comes to a will and disposing of her money and property. Good examples are when:

  • A child is the primary care giver for a parent and spends the most time with her, and he uses his position of trust to convince the parent that her other children don't need or deserve to share in her estate when she dies
  • A new spouse convinces a parent to change her will so that he gets money or property that was originally designated for her
  • Threatening to hurt someone or his family unless he names the person making the threats in his will

It's likely that Marshall abused his position of trust to influence his mother's decisions when it came to her signature on at least one of the codicils that treated Marshall more favorably than the original will.

Pay Attention and Act

Of course, if you're tempted to influence how a loved one makes out his will, just don't do it. Marshall has been convicted on 14 criminal charges, including first-degree grand larceny (stealing more than $1 million) and scheming to defraud - to cheat her estate and her heir's out of money and property. He faces up to 25 years in prison. Morrissey was convicted on 5 counts, including scheming to defraud and forgery, and he faces up to seven years in prison. Besides the possible trouble with the law, your loved one's intentions should trump the temptations of greed and envy.

As an heir to someone's estate, such as your parent or grandparent, try to pay attention to what's going in his life and with his finances. And if something seems out of place, take action. That's what happened in Astor's case. About a year before Astor died, her grandson - Marshall's son - openly accused Marshall of abusing Astor by letting her live in squalor while he looted her estate. The grandson and others filed a will contest after Astor died, and they're the main reason why a criminal investigation took place.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Talk to your loved one about her will. You can do this without looking like your greedy. Simply explain that you want to help make sure that her final wishes are carried out. Your loved one will understand
  • Talk to your brothers and sisters or any other heirs and ask if they have any idea about the loved one's will. If what they say doesn't match what you've been told, talk to your loved one about it
  • Ask to read the will. They're not sacred, secret papers, and in most cases a loved one won't mind showing you the will

If you think someone interfered with your loved one's decisions in her will, contact an attorney immediately to get your options, including filing will contest in court

The Marshall case and other examples of tampering with an estate or a will don't mean that everyone's greedy or has bad intentions. In fact, most estates and wills are taken care of without any problems at all. Take the case as a gentle warning, though. If you keep your eyes and ears open and take a genuine interest in your loved one's affairs, you can help make sure that her last wishes are honored.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My mother asked me to help her write a will on using a form she found online. Can I do that, even though she's told me that she's planning on giving me a large part of her estate?
  • I never read my father's will before he died, but I remember one of my cousins, for years, always said things like, "Remember me in your will," and the like to my father. After he died and we heard the will, he did in fact leave quite a bit to my cousin. Were my cousin's remarks undue influence?
  • How long do I have to file a will contest? How long will it take, and how much will charge to do it?
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