Yours, Mine, Ours and Theirs: Estate Planning Challenges for Blended Families

denver elder law

Square in Assisi

 

This is the first of a series I will be writing about the modern challenge of estate planning for the “blended family” – with a particular focus on couples with adult children.  Today’s post will serve as an introduction and overview.

Yes, the days of the “Leave it to Beaver” style family are long gone.  So what has replaced it as the norm?  Well, not much of a norm at all really, which is why so many people pine for the good old days when things were so much simpler!   Let’s face it, we’re living longer and many of us are choosing to be married or coupled for love and not for life and many baby boomers have chosen different routes for their life partnerships than our parents.  There is simply no template or norm for these couples and their families looking into longevity planning, caregiving arrangements or estate planning priorities when it comes to the modern blended family.  This basic fact makes the whole effort just that much more daunting for most of us – but if we break it down into a conversation that has a beginning and a “to do” list based on the priorities identified in that conversation, efforts can be greatly simplified just by virtue of talking about the obvious, the gorilla in the room that demands our attention (or else).

The impetus for this series of blog posts began with a suggestion by one of my colleagues who organizes the Jefferson County Senior Law Day, at which I have spoken about durable powers of attorney and conservatorships for the last few years.  At this year’s event, scheduled for Saturday, June 4th, I have agreed to take on a new topic – on the challenges of longevity and estate planning in the context of the blended family.  (And yes, it’s the same weekend as the Larimer Square Chalk Art Festival.  I’m happy to be sponsoring the square by my artist cousin, Martin Calomino. . . .  I’m sure I’ll be posting some of the pictures from that festival to adorn my blog posts!)

I’ve posted on this general topic before, but I’m going to be looking into this in a much more in-depth manner.  I have looked into some internet resources for blended families with adult step-children.  I was surprised to find a number of good articles.  This article talks about the importance of identifying expectations when adult step children are part of a blended family.  When I work with a couple who have a “blended family” – there is a wide range of possibilities along the scale of what is considered blended.  Sometimes there are common family events in which the is frequent, regular or expected interaction among the adult step-siblings, while other times these opportunities to interact are few and far between.  Here is an article with some practical ideas about what a newly married couple did to ensure that the four adult children (two from both husband and wife) had the opportunity to feel like they were welcome in their parent’s home and included in family activities.  Here’s an interview style article that looks at a rocky start to a closely-knit blended family.

So, what exactly am I going to be writing about in this topical series of posts?

Here’s an overview of my next post:

Identifying Some of the Challenges for the Blended Family- including (1) what are the assumptions that govern a couple’s thinking about their relationship relative to the relationship with their children;  (2) the dangers of pretending that there is no potential for conflict; (3) starting up the conversation about the difficult questions and talking constructively about what will happen if and what will happen when; (4) getting familiar with what the challenges of longevity mean for couples in a blended family; and (5) the importance of estate planning to minimize conflict among members of a blended family.

In later posts, I will be looking at the different ways those challenges of getting started with the conversation and identifying values and priorities can be effectively met.  Rest assured, this is seldom a “once and for all” kind of arrangement – the importance of paying attention to changes in our lives and making the necessary adjustments cannot be overemphasized.  To that end, I will be looking at estate planning – both chosen and inadvertent, in the context of the freedom of testation (writing a will) and freedom from testation (the “plan” that most people choose, which means doing nothing and facing the consequences of the law of intestacy of your state of residency).  I will also be looking at identifying different kinds of property, both testate and intestate as well – in order to come up with a cohesive “big picture” estate plan.  And I will be revisiting the marital agreement and the usefulness of such an agreement to spell out many important details of a couple’s estate plan.

That’s all for now. . .

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Elder Financial Abuse of a POA by an Agent – part II

Siennese Sculpture

Siennese Sculpture

 

This is the second post on the topic of elder financial abuse and abuse of a power of attorney by an agent.  Read the first post here.   In the background here is the bigger question about how we can think about how we want manage our longevity and plan for incapacity, but let’s face it . . . .  many of us would prefer to not think about it at all, so avoidance is a common response to this question!  This looming prospect of diminishing capacity is of course is a phenomenon that will affect us in increasing numbers as the baby boomer cohort continues to grow older.  For a bit of background about the “job description” of an agent under a general (financial) POA in Colorado, you can read the Colorado Bar Association’s brochure entitled “So Now You Are an Agent Under a Financial Power of Attorney here.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and it is particularly applicable to the task of naming the right person as agent in a POA.  Fortunately, there are plenty of resources about the prevention aspect.  The American Bar Association, through its Commission on Law and Aging, has lots of helpful information relating to durable power of attorney abuse and other financial exploitation topics, as well as materials relating to the legal issues involving elder abuse and resources for law enforcement and lawyers is available here.

Let’s start small with the two examples I described in the previous post: So what might this kind of POA abuse or exploitation look like?  Often the elder principal’s major asset is the home.  Is an agent transferring the principal’s interest or a partial interest in the principal’s home to him or herself (not as agent)?  What I have seen on more than a couple occasions is an agent use a quitclaim deed to accomplish this type of transfer.  One was for supposed “safekeeping” – the agent was afraid that a sibling was going to be given an interest in the property, so the agent transferred to herself first (!); and another transfer was “just in case” mom needed to qualify for Medicaid later one, at least that was the rationale for relieving her of her sole asset.

What can an elder law attorney do to assist in these types of scenarios?

Individual concerns vary widely and an elder may be interested in preserving some sense of family harmony and so the initial gestures to correct a problem don’t always need to be big and bold.  People don’t usually want to start with the nuclear option, but it is important to identify a strategy that will identify the “what if’s” in the event the agent doesn’t take the opportunity given to them to fix the problem and do right by their parent.  In the quitclaim transfers described above, a letter from an attorney (me) was enough motivation to get the situation fixed and they were both successfully resolved with no legal proceedings.  These situations were remedied by the transfers being “undone” by the agents.  In the first example, the POA was revoked and replaced with another POA.  This is often not so simple however, as a recalcitrant agent may often refuse to stop or cooperate and so legal proceedings must be instituted.

What else can an elder principal do about shutting down a “rogue agent?”

Back to the prevention theme:  Stay engaged with others!  While many of us Americans love to be independent, it is better for our overall health to be part of a community.  Remember that social isolation of elders can sometimes lead to situations where an elder can easily be taken advantage of by ill-intentioned people.  Read more about elders and social engagement here.  In my experience, neighbors can be very helpful in this regard, to keep a watchful eye on the elder and the elder’s emotional well-being and engagement with others.

Okay, to stay on today’s topic here, let’s take a look finally at some of the legal action that can be taken to remedy and rectify a situation created by a misbehaving agent.

There are a number of legal and equitable actions and remedies available to a principal who has been damaged by their agent.  Remember that the agent works for the principal and the agent is a “fiduciary” of the principal, which means the agent must act with the highest degree of good faith on behalf of the principal.

In a situation where the agent is behaving badly, there are a number of actions which the principal can consider.  The POA statute and the probate code allow for a number of proceedings in these kinds of circumstances, including: removal of the agent; filing a petition to review agent’s action; and an action for breach of fiduciary duty.  Equitable remedies (as distinguished from legal remedies) would include petition for surcharge (which might include lost income and recovery of attorney’s fees) and imposition of a constructive trust.  Another type of proceeding against the agent would be tort actions – including fraud, misrepresentation and conversion.

Here’s a law review article that provides a good overview of many of the legal and equitable actions and remedies which might be pursued.

That’s all for this second installment.  In the third and final installment on this them I will be looking at the similarities between elder financial exploitation and abuse and domestic violence, as they share many similar behaviors.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Vulnerable Elders and the Slayer Statute part 2

Concrete Windows of Chalk

Concrete Windows of Chalk

This is the second installment on this topic.  In the first post, I gave an overview of vulnerable elders and the criminal nature of elder abuse and exploitation laws and also the civil remedial law background of the slayer statute.  Why is Physician Assisted Death (PAD) mentioned in the title?  Because the now-dead bill in the Colorado legislature had NO reporting requirements, which I thought was a very bad idea that could give predators of frail and ill elders in Colorado a bit too much cover for their misdeeds!  In this continuation on the topic of vulnerable elders and the slayer statute, I look at some of the state laws that have broadened their slayer statutes to include elder abuse.

Elder Abuse Laws Can Be Both Criminal and Civil in Nature and State or Federal

In this post, the focus I use on elder abuse as primarily criminal in nature, meaning there are criminal penalties upon conviction and these of course vary from state to state.  The Elder Justice Act of 2009, as part of the Affordable Care Act, coordinated actions to combat elder abuse across the federal government.  My overview today will be confined to looking at state statutes, not federal legislation.  The inclusion of elder abuse in a slayer statute expands the scope of who can be disinherited.  Keep in mind there are a wide range of civil remedies which may be available to an abused elder.

The Abuser/Slayer Statutes Cover a Diverse Variety of Abuse

As I wrote in a previous post, Washington is one of eight states that have broadened slayer rules to apply in some form to abusers of elders. The other seven states that have expanded their disinheritance laws to preclude abusers from inheriting from their victims are Arizona, Oregon, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, and Michigan.  State statutes vary as to the type of abuse that triggers application of the law.

In contrast with Washington, which expanded its slayer law to include only financial abuse, some jurisdictions have amended their laws to also include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. In addition, states differ as to whether a criminal conviction of abuse is necessary to trigger application of the rule as well as whether the rules can be applied retroactively.

Arizona and Maryland have also expanded their disinheritance and slayer rules to disqualify persons on the basis of financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. For example, in Arizona, the statute reads:

A person who is in a position of trust and confidence to a vulnerable adult shall use the vulnerable adult’s assets solely for the benefit of the vulnerable adult and not for the benefit of the person who is in the position of trust and confidence to the vulnerable adult or the person’s relatives. Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 46-456 (2014).

Maryland’s statute has similar wording: [A] person may not knowingly and willfully obtain by deception, intimidation, or undue influence the property of an individual that the person knows or reasonably should know is at least 68 years old [or a vulnerable adult] with intent to deprive the individual of the individual’s property.  Md. Code Ann. Crim. Law § 8-801(e) (2011).

These statutes do not include physical, sexual, or psychological abuse as triggers for application of the slayer and abuser law.  The Arizona law requires the abuser to be in a position of “trust and confidence.”  This trust and confidence, or “confidential relationship” as it is often called in the law, contributes to the vulnerability of the person abused or slain.  The Restatement [Third] of the Law of Restitution and Unjust Enrichment devotes §43 to a discussion of fiduciary (as in agent under a power of attorney, etc.) or confidential relationship.  Interestingly, the Arizona law does not appear to encompass situations where a would-be beneficiary lacks a fiduciary or confidential relationship to the vulnerable adult.

Some other states that have expanded their slayer or disinheritance laws to include abuser provisions (California, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oregon) have amended their laws to apply to physical abuse and neglect in addition to financial exploitation. In Oregon, an “abuser” is defined as “a person who is convicted of a felony by reason of conduct that constitutes physical abuse … or financial abuse.”   The requirement of a felony conviction is substantial.  California’s statute uses a broader definition of abuse that includes physical abuse, neglect, false imprisonment, or financial abuse of an elderly or dependent adult.  See Cal. Prob. Code, § 259 (2012).  There are many variations on the elder abuser and slayer combinations of statutory relief!

Other than Washington, California is the only state with slayer and abuser laws that do not require criminal conviction related to abuse of the decedent as a triggering event for application of the disinheritance abuse rules.  This is more closely in keeping with the regime of the slayer statute, of civil relief that is afforded, like in Colorado’s statute, as a result of a criminal conviction or civil court’s determination that the elements of a qualifying crime have been met so as to bring the resulting death under the purview of the statute.

The California law is triggered if the would-be heir is convicted of abuse under the state’s penal code, or the abuse (in addition to such factors as whether the decedent was a vulnerable adult) is proved in a civil court by clear and convincing evidence. In Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, and Oregon, criminal conviction related to the abuse of the decedent by the heir is required.

By way of illustration, the Michigan statute provides: A judgment of conviction establishing criminal accountability for the … abuse, neglect, or exploitation of the decedent conclusively establishes the convicted individual as the decedent’s killer or as a felon.  See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 700.2803 (2012).   It also provides for an alternative civil determination that an individual is a slayer under the slayer and abuser Civil, not criminal) rules. This judgment is achieved when a preponderance of the evidence provided in civil court proves that the would-be heir feloniously and intentionally killed the decedent. The statute is devoid of any civil-standard alternative for persons accused of abusing the decedent. The Michigan statute specifically calls for a felony conviction related to abuse; presumably, then, a finding or plea for a misdemeanor-level crime would not trigger the disinheritance provision. The plain language of some of the other statutes as to the degree of criminal culpability is not as clear.

There Is a Wide Range of State Laws by Which Criminal Acts and Some Civil Actions Form the Basis for Disinheritance as Part of an Abuser/Slayer Law  

Similar to Washington law, some states have drafted rebuttable-presumption clauses in their abuse disinheritance laws to negate the disqualification of an abuser from inheriting from a decedent. The California code negates the disqualification of an abuser if the alleged abuser proves that the vulnerable adult “was substantially able to manage his or her financial resources and to resist fraud or undue influence” subsequent to the alleged abuse.  This presumes that the person making the will (testator),  knew of the abuse and had the capacity to change the estate plan but nonetheless elected to allow the abuser to inherit.

As I noted in the first post, the roots of the modern slayer statute are ancient in origin.  The slayer statute is part of a state’s civil law as it is not criminal in nature.  Keep in mind that one of the major distinctions between criminal and civil law is the what is at stake for the defendant: the criminal penalty may involve imprisonment, fines, etc., as they are offenses against the state; while the civil matter involves money and sometimes specific actions.  The burden of proof is also different.  In criminal matters it is generally “beyond a reasonable doubt” while in civil matters it is typically a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) and sometimes by clear and convincing evidence.

Due to their remedial nature, slayer statutes have long been enmeshed with criminal law. Expanding slayer statutes to include disinheritance for different types of elder abuse similarly involves a careful look at how the range of criminal and civil laws relating to elder abuse will be effectively drawn into the disinheritance scheme of the slayer statute.  Colorado has no such law at the present time, nor is one being considered in the legislature.   If there is a PAD law that comes into effect – by either statute or ballot initiative – which contains no reporting requirements, then an abuser/slayer law might be a good idea.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

 

Vulnerable Elders and the Slayer Statute

Italian Stone Face

Italian Stone Face

A couple weeks back, I posted an update on the proposed End of Life Options Act, a bill in the Colorado legislature which has since died (presumably of natural causes).  There is concern that some version of the bill will make it onto a ballot to become law by other means.    For this reason, today’s post will go into a bit more detail about the concerns I raised about the implications of having no reporting requirements for such a law and concerns I have with regard to the safety of some vulnerable elders.

Vulnerable Elders

Colorado’s mandatory elder abuse reporting statute defines an at-risk adult as “any person who is seventy years of age or older or any person who is eighteen years of age or older and is a person with a disability.”  Colo. Rev. Stat. §18-6.5.102(2).  The only reputable (US Census based) internet fact I ran across about this population was for persons 65 and up, who in July 2014, were estimated to be 12.7% of the population of Colorado.

From a civil rights perspective, aspects of elder abuse prevention statutes can often seem paternalistic.   Much of the research that could be done on the subject is problematic because of ethical and methodological problems.  Collecting information about elder abuse may publicly expose cognitive, physical, mental and social vulnerabilities and the collection of such information could have negative implications in the form of legal, financial or social consequences for both the elders and caregivers and others who might participate as part of a study.  I mention this because the vast majority of elder adults are competent and retain capacity, at least in the eyes of the law.  The implication of these observations is that we really don’t have solid numbers about how many perpetrators and victims we are talking about.  As an elder law attorney, I can say that it is extremely difficult for an elder parent to call me (or adult protective services) to report abuse or exploitation being perpetrated by an adult child or family member of the elder.  Suffice it to say we don’t really know, and may never have a very firm handle on how many elders are affected as victims of exploitation and abuse.

When you couple this with the lack of any reporting requirement for a physician assisted death law, it would not be possible to track the numbers of vulnerable elders who might fall prey to an abuser’s or exploiter’s plan to hasten someone’s demise so that they might inherit something from the elder.  Enter the slayer statute.  Here’s an article about “disincentivizing” elder abuse.  Keep in mind that elder abuse statutes have criminal penalties.  There are of course distinguished from civil remedies, which can provide other types of relief.

The Slayer Statute – A Modern Law with Ancient Origins

If you’ve never heard of a slayer statute, you’re not alone! It’s both obscure and ancient.  Before there were any state “slayer statutes” there was the common law slayer rule.  Its origin hearkens back to the first known remedial law code in human history: the Code of Hammurabi.  The Code of the Babylonian king was inscribed on a stone pillar (called a stele) and installed in a public place.  It was a combination of legal principles and history.  Most of us are familiar with the axiom “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as some precept of retributive law in the form of revenge as recompense for personal harm, but it is much more likely the expression has been badly misinterpreted and taken out of context.  It is probably much more closely aligned with other commentary in the code which describes the value of certain personal injuries in terms of repayment.  In short, it was a code of remedial law – akin to modern day worker’s compensation and tort law.

The principle from Hammurabi’s code is that “a killer cannot profit from his wrong.”  The common law rule, nullus commondum capere potest de injuria sua propria (no one can take advantage of his wrongdoing) forms the basis of the historical slayer rules and subsequent statutes, preventing slayers from inheriting from their victims.

Probably the most well-known case (from law school) to articulate a slayer rule is Riggs v. Palmer, 22 N.E. 188 (N.Y. 1889). In that case a grandfather had executed a will leaving small portions of his property to his children and the remainder to his grandson. The grandfather subsequently married and stated that he intended to change his will to include his wife. The unhappy grandson caused his grandfather’s death in an attempt to secure his portion of the estate.  The court held that grandson was disqualified from inheriting because of his action and relied on the grounds of moral equity to articulate a slayer rule in American jurisprudence.

Forty-seven states have slayer statutes. Colorado is a Uniform Probate Code state, among many other states which have adopted that version of the slayer statutes.  Colorado’s is codified at C.R.S §15-11-803 and contains both a criminal and civil provision for determining that a felonious killing has occurred such that a slayer/felonious killer is prevented from inheriting from the person whom they slew.

This post will be continued next week. . .

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org