The jury verdict is in for one of the most intriguing will contest cases ever. The son of the late New York philanthropist and millionaire, Brooke Astor, had been charged with 16 counts related to fraud, larceny, forgery, and more, stemming from changes to her will and related (alleged) wrongdoing. Here are my prior blog articles on the case.
Well maybe you can remove the word "alleged". The jury convicted Anthony Marshall and his co-defendant, lawyer Francis X. Morrissey, Jr. Marshall, age 85, faces up to 25 years in jail based on the guilty verdict for 14 of the 16 counts, including fraud in connection with her will, larceny, conspiracy and a host of related charges.
While some of the convictions do not surprise me -- especially the retroactive lump-sum pay raise he gave himself of $1 million (for managing Astor's finances) -- I must express my surprise at the will-related convictions. People with Alzheimer's have good and bad days, and proving Astor was incompetent at the moment of signing, based on the high proof required in a criminal case (beyond a reasonable doubt), was very hard to do.
But the prosecution was aggressive. The trial lasted more than 19 weeks and involved 72 witness who testified (in varying degrees) about Astor's mental decline. Only two of these were defense witnesses.
Marshall's attorneys have already promised an appeal. For example, they will clearly challenge the jury verdict based on one juror's note given to the judge during their 12 days of deliberation. The note said the female juror felt her personal safety was threatened by another juror and asked to be excused. The judge denied the request. Defense attorneys argue this prevented the jury from rendering a fair and objective verdict. With a trial this long, they will likely find dozens of other grounds on which to base their appeal.
In addition to the appeal, the case will also move to Surrogate's Court (New York's probate court) to determine whether the will and amendments should be invalidated based on lack of mental competency and fraud. This seems to be a certainty after the criminal verdict. How much of Astor's $180 million estate will pass to Marshall remains to be seen.
Families can learn two valuable lessons from this case. First, it shows how important the proper estate planning is, because any family can be embroiled in a lengthy and expensive court fight after a loved one passes. Good estate planning is the best way to prevent this.
Second, even the very wealthy can be victims of financial exploitation and abuse. When you have an elderly loved one with a diagnoses of dementia or Alzheimer's, or even notice increased memory loss or confusion, it is time to help make sure their financial affairs are in order and monitor their bank statements and legal documents. Apparently, even someone as wealthy as Anthony Marshall can be guilty of this crime (he was already a multi-millionaire). Imagine what could happen to your elderly parent or grandparent with so many people desperate for money.
Do not turn a blind eye. Be proactive. Be safe. Do not let what happened to Brooke Astor happen to your family members. It's not always easy to prevent, but the sooner you spot a problem, the easier it is to prevent or rectify.
Not sure how to talk to your loved ones about this? I, with my co-author Danielle Mayoras, wrote a book to help address this very point, including a complete analysis of the Brooke Astor case and dozens of other true celebrity stories. We help people learn from celebrity errors so they can protect their heirs. You can learn about Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! here.
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+