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.