Comedian Joey Bishop was the final member of the Rat Pack to die, passing away on October 17, 2007. In addition to his friendship with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Peter Lawford, Bishop was known for his frequent television and movie appearances, including the many times he guest hosted The Tonight Show for Johnny Carson.
Bishop amassed a multimillion dollar estate before he passed; sadly, that estate is now in legal turmoil. His live-in girlfriend, Nora Garibotti, and several different lawyers and law firms that handled his estate planning needs during his final years are battling each other in multiple court proceedings. Garibotti lived with Bishop for more than eight years after his wife passed and says he even asked her to marry him in 2002. Her lawsuit states that these attorneys used "despicable and fraudulent conduct" to prevent Bishop's true wishes from being effectuated. (Wait a minute, lawyers using despicable conduct? Say it isn't so!) You can read her lawsuit here.
She alleges that the lawyers convinced Bishop to leave substantial portions of his wealth to them, through his will and trust, instead of leaving everything to Garibotti and his grandchildren. She produced handwritten notes signed by Bishop saying he wanted much of his personal property, cash, and his multimillion dollar house to go to Garibotti, in addition to one-half of his Estate and Trust, which she was already receiving. Her lawsuit also claims that the lawyers committed malpractice by failing to revise his estate planning documents to effectuate these wishes and to reduce the amounts left to them.
The attorneys, of course, are fighting back. They claim that Garibotti committed elder abuse and exploited Bishop when he had severe dementia, by convincing him to sign those handwritten notes through undue influence, when he really didn't want to. They tried to counter-sue using these claims, but a Los Angeles judge ruled last week that they raised these claims too late. Now the case is set for trial on Garibotti's claims alone, in May of this year.
This case involves some classic examples of undue influence and mental incompetence claims, which I see often in my metro Detroit probate litigation practice. But there is one aspect to this case that is quite unusual -- namely, the fact that Bishop's lawyers appear to be substantial beneficiaries of his Estate and Trust, in addition to being named as the administrators. Estate planning lawyers receive payment for their time, usually with a flat fee or on an hourly basis, not by being named as beneficiaries. Many states don't even allow lawyers to be beneficiaries of wills or trusts that they help prepare (with some exceptions).
If you ever meet with a lawyer who suggests that you name him or her as a beneficiary -- or even an estate executor or trustee of your trust -- exercise extreme caution and seek a second opinion. This should only be done in very rare circumstances.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+