How Did Alzheimer’s Impact the Estate Planning of These Famous People?

Forbes’ recent article, “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease” looks at seven celebrity estates that were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Rosa Parks. The civil rights icon died at 92 in 2005. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Legal battles over her estate continue to this day. Her estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. However, her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence. That claim was settled, but there have been fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption and a battle over Rosa’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
  2. Gene Wilder. Wilder’s widow–his fourth wife, Karen–and his adopted daughter didn’t fight over Gene’s estate after he died, which shows good estate planning. Wilder makes the list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle—which she kept private while he was alive—to bring attention to the terrible disease, including permitting his Willy Wonka character to be used in a campaign to raise awareness.
  3. Aaron Spelling. The Hollywood producer left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor. Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
  4. Etta James. Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73. Her family said she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and her illness ignited an ugly court battle between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship, over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account. Her husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney she signed appointing her son as decision-maker was invalid, because she was incompetent when she signed it. Mills sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care. After some litigation, Etta’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
  5. Peter Falk. The Lieutenant Columbo actor died at 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife Shera and his adopted daughter Catherine fought in court for conservatorship to make his decisions. Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. However, a doctor, who testified at the hearing, said that Falk’s memory was so bad that he probably wouldn’t even remember the visits.
  6. Tom Benson. The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a lengthy and bitter court battle over control of his professional sports franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets. Prior trusts, that he and his late wife established, left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of granddaughters operated the Saints as lead owner, until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom decided to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams. However, his daughter and grandchildren fought the move. A 2015 court ruling declared Benson to be competent, despite allegations he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Benson then changed his will and trust and left everything to his third wife, Gayle. They all settled the dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to the daughter and grandchildren—but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans, after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
  7. Glen Campbell. Campbell’s 2007 estate plan left out three of his adult children. They sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. They dropped the case in 2018, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was drafted several years prior to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a critical factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The estate planning of these celebrities show the importance of proper estate planning, before it is too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions are more apt to be challenged in court.

Reference: Forbes (November 25, 2019) “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease”

Steps to Take as a Parent’s Condition Takes a Turn

An 80-year-old man had seizures several months ago. He was treated in the hospital and since then, has had some lapses in short-term memory. His long-term memory is okay, but he is not retaining day-to-day matters very well. His awareness of a loss of some functionality has left him frustrated and a little depressed, as described in the article “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens” from the Davis Enterprise. The use of some antidepressants and medication has been helpful, and he seems better. However, what should the children be doing, at this time, to prepare for what may come next?

The children should make arrangements to have their parents go see an estate planning attorney soon. The fact that only the wife is power of attorney, and that the forms have not been updated in many years is cause for serious concern. While their mom may be capable right now of handling his personal and financial affairs, the stress of caretaking for her husband is likely to take its toll on her. If the father’s condition deteriorates, she will likely need help. If for some reason she’s unable to act, then it will be far better if the children, or one of the children, has the legal right to step in.

The first question is whether the father has the legal capacity to create new powers of attorney for financial management and health care. To execute a power of attorney, a person must have mental capacity. The legal standard for this is the same as it is for someone signing a contract: the person must understand and appreciate the consequences of the document being signed.

There are four broad categories of mental deficits that impact a person’s capacity: alertness and attention, information processing, thought processes and the ability to modulate mood. Short-term memory problems and depression may be considered deficits in both information processing and mood. However, that is only one part of the analysis.

Most estate planning attorneys will suggest that any client whose mental capacity may be questionable, should obtain a note from their treating physician that they are capable of understanding and signing legal documents. This is not a legal requirement, but it will help if there is a challenge to the documents he signed, and someone claims that he lacked capacity.

If the father indeed has capacity to execute a new power of attorney, then the adult children can be identified as alternates to the wife. If she is not able to act as an agent, then the siblings will be able to step up. However, if he is unable to execute a new power of attorney, the previous power of attorney would be the operative document. If for some reason, the wife is unable to perform as his agent, there is no one to serve as a backup.

In that case, a petition would need to be filed in the probate court to have a child or children appointed conservator. While that would give the child(ren) the same power as a power of attorney, they will also need to report to the court on an on-going basis. Conservatorship proceedings are expensive and time-consuming and should be a last resort.

These problems rarely get better over time. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney as soon as possible to prepare for the future.

Reference: Davis Enterprise (Oct. 2019) “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens”

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