Monday, August 11, 2008

Inheritance in America: Rights v. Slights

by Lou Ann Anderson

Rights of inheritance, the tradition of designating heirs to receive property or other assets upon one’s death, are a long-standing American institution currently under assault. The term “dying wish” would not be ingrained into our culture were it not a time-honored tradition – at least until now. Pre-empting or violating rights of inheritance is a disturbing new avenue for garnering financial resources.

Today’s American mindset increasingly reflects an entitlement sense in which people view poaching the resources of others commensurate to days past when honorable asset acquisition resulted from a strong work ethic and self-reliance. Be it through government or private resources, honest or otherwise, “getting what you deserve” has become paramount with probate venues and instruments such as wills, trusts and guardianships now vehicles used for accessing the assets of others. Property poaching via wills and trusts typically happens posthumously, but asset looting can also occur preemptively (during a targeted individual’s lifetime) through a guardianship so that upon death, heirs still have rights of inheritance only estates contain little or nothing to inherit.

The family of J.P. and Doris Manire, residents of Denton County, TX, had this experience. An effort started in late 2004 left the couple both under guardianships appointed by a Denton County probate judge. Family members report that in 18 or so months, assets (cash and other investments) totaling about $500,000 appear to have funded court-appointed guardians and attorneys as well as paid for Doris’ nursing home expenses and medications despite family at that time being willing and able to care for the couple. Doris died May 2007.

Though intended to be the long-term home of their son and his family, the Manire’s homestead (house and acreage) was sold later in 2007 for approximately $150,000 with proceeds ostensibly earmarked to fund additional probate-related expenses. Shortly before his June 2008 death, the court agreed to return several modest bequests J.P. made to his son and grandchildren, bequests previously taken away by the guardians. A pre-paid funeral contract was also approved for purchase. Weeks later J.P. died and his grandson paid the balance on his grandfather’s burial with reimbursement allegedly forthcoming from the estate. Despite once having financial means, J.P.’s family believes he was on Medicaid at the time of his death thus shifting the cost of his care to taxpayers. Throughout this action, the Manire family received limited financial information and was largely denied physical access to their loved ones. The government’s takeover of two aging yet self-sufficient and historically productive people denied the Manire heirs their right to inherit family resources clearly designated for them while parties friendly to the government appeared to profit.

Another pre-emptive and “beyond belief” story continues in Connecticut. Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green began reporting several years ago about Daniel Gross, a New York resident involuntarily kept in a Connecticut nursing home after having become sick while on a trip. A court-appointed guardian caused him to be held for more than 10 months against his will until a Superior Court judge intervened terming the case “a terrible miscarriage of justice.” Despite Gross having been freed two years ago and having died in October 2007, Gross’ former conservator is back in court seeking nearly $40,000 from Gross’ estate – compensation for work on what was deemed an unlawful act! This family has been through enough – both financially and emotionally. Daniel Gross presumably left assets to designated heirs who now have to defend their rights of inheritance from a “we deserve it” entity whose only claim stems from a blatant disregard of the law.

Property rights, rights of inheritance, dying wishes – they used to be respected concepts as did people’s intentions in such matters. Not any more. One of the most famous inheritance rights cases is Marshall v. Marshall – better known for petitioner Vickie Lynn Marshall (aka Anna Nicole Smith). This case exemplifies how disrespectful people can be toward a person’s final wishes. It shows that despite preparation and execution of a bona fide estate plan, today’s American society – including the legal community - is accepting of, even willing to assist, those seeking personal though illegitimate gain by thwarting another individual’s legitimate right to determine his/her property’s ultimate distribution. And with access to funds and/or notoriety that attracts contingency attorneys, proceedings can then be contrived and extended so that the “wheels of justice” and billable hours churn indefinitely.

Not long after the 2006 death of E. Pierce Marshall, son of J. Howard Marshall II and heir to his father’s estate, The Dallas Morning News published an article in which family members described the prolonged legal battle with Smith being “a personal commitment Pierce made to his father.” The sense communicated was that the 10+ years of courtroom battles were about honoring the final wishes of J. Howard Marshall II. A family friend was quoted saying “…the public life wore him (Pierce) down and put a pessimistic streak in him that I was looking forward to see go away when the suits did. Alas, he did not reach that point.”

Perspectives of the Manire and Gross families have undoubtedly been shaped based on their experiences. They likely feel violated by our judicial system, maybe other government entities and certainly by specific individuals involved with abusing the legal system and violating tenets of basic decency. If Pierce Marshall, a man with a noble mission as well as significant financial and professional resources, was left with a similar “pessimistic” feeling, Americans need to wake up.

When people with exceptional resources have their rights of inheritance unjustly challenged and despite good faith efforts, cannot ward off estate predators, where does this leave the rest of America? What hope is there for the Manire family, the Gross family – or for your family?

Your property is at risk. Your heirs’ future enjoyment of hard-earned family assets is not so guaranteed. An overwhelming sense of entitlement is causing rights of inheritance to be violated or denied every day. Be aware – everything you have could depend on it.

Lou Ann Anderson is producer of The Lynn Woolley Show, a Texas-based talk radio program. She also is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. Lou Ann may be contacted at

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