Probate lawyers in this country fight in court on a daily basis about whether people are competent or require a guardian and/or conservator to manage their medical, financial and legal affairs. Most people don't pay such disputes much notice, but some are worthy of extra attention.
Phoebe Hearst Cooke is one of six grandchildren of legendary publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. In addition to tremendous wealth built through Hearst's newspaper and other media corporations, the Hearst family is perhaps most well known because of the events surrounding another Hearst granddaughter, kidnap victim Patty Hearst.
Because of her great wealth, Cooke also enjoys a certain amount of fame. In fact, she has been a regular member of Forbe's list of 400 Richest Americans, coming in at number 215 in 2008. Her fortune is estimated to be around 2.1 billion dollars.
She and some of her family members, including twin brother George Hearst, Jr. (chairman of the Hearst Corp.) are now fighting in probate court in California about whether she is capable of managing her own financial affairs. Her relatives claim she is "paranoid, irrational, uncooperative and delusional and in need of supervision and assistance" according to this recent article in the San Luis Obispo (California) Tribune.
Last July, her family filed the case, concerned over multiple six-figure checks she wrote as gifts, and a whopping one of almost 2 million dollars she paid to a local car dealer to help her manage her finances. Cooke and her attorneys argued that she has always been generous, and these sums have to be evaluated in light of the fact that dollars have a much different meaning to someone with that much wealth. In addition to claiming she is still competent, Cooke points out that she recently hired a trust company to help manage her wealth, to alleviate any concerns that the court may have.
Cooke doesn't seem to be doing herself any favors in the ongoing litigation. Her first attorney had to withdraw from the case because she was so difficult, he felt that he could not effectively represent her. Her latest attorney, who was appointed by the court, was then removed by the court for inadequate insurance, now leaving her without counsel. Certainly, the judge will appoint her another probate litigation lawyer.
And that new attorney will have a difficult job. The court has already allowed the temporary conservator, appointed back in July, to sell hundreds of Cooke's prized horses and cattle, much to the wealthy heiress' dismay. This conservator is a local public guardian, not a family member or friend chosen by Cooke.
Whether she truly is competent or not, the saddest part is that this entire legal battle could easily have been avoided. Anyone with any degree of assets (and I'm not talking about billions or even millions), should have a properly drafted revocable living trust. When such a trust is created and properly funded with assets, it can serve to protect a person and honor his or her wishes not only in death, but in life as well.
If Cooke had created such a trust and funded her assets into it, then even when incompetent, a person she had selected and approved could have taken over managing her assets. Even better, Cooke could have included specific and explicit instructions in the trust requiring the trustee not to sell things she didn't want sold, such as horses and cattle, if those wishes were important to her.
There is simply no excuse for someone with that much money not to have protected herself with the help of a good estate planning attorney. When you do the proper planning, you can often avoid needing to hire a good guardian and conservator attorney down the road. When you don't, this exact scenario can happen to you, whether you are worth billions or mere thousands. Don't leave your future up to chance.
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+