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August Roundup: Epstein, Aretha, and Abuse

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August roundup

At the end of each month, we like to look back at developments in elder law and share them in a roundup of news items. (Feeling nostalgic? Check out June and July.) August was a lively month for estates and legal issues, and this month’s roundup centers on one of them: Jeffrey Epstein.

There’s also an update on Aretha Franklin’s estate (messier than ever) and elder abuse news (Did you know Groucho Marx was a victim?).

The Implications of Jeffrey Epstein’s Will

Can you believe everything in news stories you read? Of course not, particularly when the subject requires some expertise and nuance. The stories about Jeffrey Epstein’s Will and trust, which he signed days before his death, are good illustrations of how many journalists (just like normal people) don’t quite understand how Wills, trusts, and the probate process work.

The New York Post was the first to report that the Will had been filed in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Their online story embeds copies of the actual documents, which for probate geeks are an interesting read.) The Post story lead to a flurry of articles that attempted to determine what it all means; most outlets picked up the Associated Press story, but many, including the New York Times, CBS, ABC, CNBC, and Forbes jumped in with their own takes.

There are many inaccuracies and half-understood bits of estate planning and probate scattered through the coverage, though notably CNBC followed up with a largely accurate story this weekend. Most glaring was the popular main storyline: that the trust Epstein created would make it much harder for Epstein’s accusers to collect. A Forbes follow-up correctly concludes no, not really, and explains why. Among other misunderstandings and inaccuracies in the reporting:

  • Being suicidal means you may not have the capacity to sign a Will. (No)
  • Assets go automatically from a Will to a trust without creditors getting paid. (No)
  • Keeping beneficiaries private via a trust has some bearing on the victim’s cases. (No)
  • Epstein was able to hide assets in the trust. (Apparently not since the filing lists more than $577 million to be probated)
  • Epstein transferred millions to the trust in a couple of days. (Again, apparently not since it’s all in the probate)
  • That executors pay all claims before paying any taxes. (Maybe estate tax, but not other taxes)
  • That trust litigation avoids “prying eyes” of public proceedings. (No, only if there’s no litigation)
  • That all children Epstein may have fathered could have a claim. (The trust probably says no)

We particularly take issue with the source in the AP story who said it was “gross negligence” on the part of Epstein’s lawyers and jailers to allow Epstein to sign a Will.  No, no, no.  Even (and may be especially) the suicidal should create an estate plan, and everybody–even Jeffrey Epstein–gets to decide where his assets will go after death. That is, if anything is left after the lawsuits and the IRS are done.

A Year Later, Franklin Estate Is in Turmoil

Aretha Franklin died a year ago August 16, and her estate remains troubled, to say the least. At a lively three-hour hearing early this month in Detroit, family members expressed frustration with the process. Some called for the removal of the personal representative, Franklin’s niece.  The judge instead placed the estate under court supervision, which means the parties can scrutinize and debate nearly every decision. This month’s filings also revealed that Franklin apparently wasn’t a good steward of her money. An updated estate inventory revealed she had almost $1 million in uncashed checks in her possession. Plus: the New York Times took a “year later” look at the family and the conflict.

Family Members Are Often the Abusers

A University of Southern California study of data reminds us that telephone and online scammers may not be as dangerous as our own relatives. Researchers analyzed calls, e-mails, and messages that came into the National Center on Elder Abuse  and found that family members were the most frequently identified perpetrators of alleged abuse.  The most common type of alleged family member abuse? Financial. Followed by emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. More than 32% of callers reported more than one abuse type. This type of abuse may seem more prevalent, but it’s anything but new, as this piece from PBS New Hour points out. Groucho Marx died 42 years ago, and he apparently fell victim to his “girlfriend and consort.” His family battled her for years, both during and after his death.  Here’s an excellent resource to protect yourself.

If you would like us to address a topic in a weekly article or see a news item out there that might be of interest for our monthly roundup, please let us know.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.