Civil rights icon Rosa Parks passed away at the age of 92 on October 25, 2005, in Detroit, Michigan. Almost six years later, her legacy is still tied up in a lengthy court battle. The case features allegations of abuse, cronyism and corruption by the probate judge as well as the two lawyers he appointed to oversee the estate and trust.
It also involves who will receive all of the considerable civil rights memorabilia owned by Rosa Parks when she was alive, and even the rights to use her name and likeness.
Parks' will and trust left the majority of her assets to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, operated by Rosa Parks' longtime friend, Elaine Steele. Parks and Steele had formed this Institute. Steele says she was close to Parks for 45 years and that Parks looked at her as the "daughter she never had."
But the probate judge did not approve of how Steele handled the estate and trust of Rosa Parks and removed her, as well as a retired Detroit Judge named along with Steele to serve as co-executors and co-trustees. He instead replaced them with two independent attorneys.
The case had started when a group of Rosa Parks' nieces and nephews sued to have the will and trust declared invalid, alleging that Steele used undue influence to convince Parks to create the estate planning documents. Almost on the eve of trial, the parties reached a global settlement, which acknowledged that the will and trust were valid and allowed the Institute, managed by Steele, to keep the majority of the memorabilia and other assets.
The settlement agreement also called for Steele and the retired judge to resume the positions of executors and trustees. The two court-appointed attorneys overseeing the estate and trust have not stepped aside, however.
They first sought payment of more than $100,000 in fees. Steele and the Institute challenged payment of these fees, but the judge allowed them. This lead to the first appeal.
During that first appeal, there was a court hearing where various lawyers argued their positions before the appellate judges about the payment of the fees. It was then that Steele and the Institute, through their lawyer at the time, allegedly violated the settlement agreement by disclosing confidential terms of the settlement while a newspaper reporter was present in the courtroom.
At least, that's what the two court-appointed lawyers believe, as do the nieces and nephews. Steele and her legal team deny it.
Because of what was said during that appellate hearing, the court-appointed lawyers went back before the probate judge and asked for a strong penalty against Steele and the Institute both.
The probate judge agreed. He not only sanctioned Steele, Rosa Park's Institute, and their lawyers, but he took the unusual step of ordering that they forfeit their entire interest in Park's estate and trust.
That's right, the judge felt what Steele's lawyer had done in the court of appeals court hearing was so egregious that he should rewrite Rosa Park's will and trust, change the disposition of her assets, and require that Parks' memorabilia and other assets be turned over to a similar type of charitable institute instead of the one set up by Parks and Steele.
The judge's ruling relied on a forfeiture clause in the settlement agreement. The clause provided that anyone who breached the confidentiality clause would forfeit their rights under the agreement.
Of course, Steele and the Institute filed another appeal. The court of appeals sided with the lawyers and agreed with the probate judge, just like they did during the first appeal.
Now, Steele and the Institute have filed with the Michigan Supreme Court, asking those seven justices to review the case. In their filing, they accuse the two lawyers of billing such high fees that the probate judge ordered that much of Parks' valuable property to be turned over to them, to pay their fees, since the estate itself had only a modest amount of monetary assets (about $373,00).
Steels believes the Judge wanted to protect the lawyers he appointed because they are his cronies. She accuses the entire Wayne County Probate Court (which is the county where Detroit is) of having, "for a significant time, operated as a nest of cronyism and corruption."
While all of this court fighting is going on, the two lawyers are putting Rosa Park's memorabilia up for sale at auction. They have not yet filed a response to the new allegations presented to the Michigan Supreme Court, but they have already prevailed in the court of appeals against these same types of allegations, which they vigorously deny.
Is Steele right and the Rosa Parks estate is being raided by court-appointed attorneys charging excessive fees? Or are they doing an honest job of protecting the estate against a former friend of Rosa Parks who committed a serious breach of a settlement agreement ... the very agreement that was supposed to end all of the fighting?
The Michigan Supreme Court will likely answer these questions once and for all in the months to come.
In the meantime, this case serves as a sad reminder of what type of fighting can occur in probate court. While good estate planning is the best way to avoid a probate court battle among your heirs -- or the heirs of your clients -- this case also provides an example of how important it is to choose the right executors and trustees. Both the original set of executors and the current set have been challenged, questioned, and attacked.
Perhaps if Rosa Parks had chosen better executors to begin with, much of this fighting could have been prevented. On the other hand, if you believe Steele -- then it wasn't she and the retired judge at fault -- but instead, their replacements are to blame. Either way, it's clear that improper administration along the line was a major cause of fighting.
Too many people don't think through who to appoint as their executor or trustee. They may choose the oldest child, or the one who lives closest, rather than picking the person most trustworthy to do the best job. As this case illustrates, everyone should carefully consider who to name to administer their will or trust, to help prevent a fight over the family fortune.
We'll keep you posted on who the Michigan Supreme Court feels failed to do a good job in this case.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national TV special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! The charismatic duo has appeared on the Rachael Ray Show, Forbes, ABC's Live Well Network, and FOX and NBC affiliates. They've lent their expertise and analysis to hundreds of media sources, including The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Kiplinger, and The Washington Post, among many others. Danielle and Andy delight audiences nationwide with highly entertaining and informative presentations, dishing the dirt on celebrity estate battles while dispensing important legal information to help people avoid family fights among their heirs.
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