What follows is an extreme case of financial exploitation of the elderly only in that it involves a large fortune. In all other respects this story mirrors cases that walk through my door all too often.
Brooke Astor was an American socialite and philanthropist. Astor inherited a sizeable fortune in 1959 when her third husband, Vincent Astor, died. Brooke Astor had one child, a son, Anthony Dryden Marshall (fathered by her first husband John Dryden Kuser but who later changed his last name to Marshall in honor of his step-father, Charles H. Marshall, who was Astor’s second husband).
In July 2006, Anthony’s son, Phillip Cryan Marshall, filed a lawsuit to remove his father as the 104 year-old socialite’s guardian asking the court to appoint Annette de la Renta, the wife of designer Oscar de la Renta, instead. The lawsuit alleged that Marshall had not provided for his elderly mother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and suffered from anemia, among other ailments. In fact, despite her enormous fortune, Ms. Astor’s grandson contended that his father had allowed his mother to live in squalor and that he had cut back on necessary medication and doctor’s visits, while enriching himself with income from her estate. Phillip Marshall even claimed that his father had sold his grandmother’s favorite Childe Hassam painting in 2002 to a Manhattan gallery for $10 million after convincing his mother that she was broke.
Astor died on August 13, 2007 at the age of 105 from pneumonia. On October 8, 2009, Anthony D. Marshall was convicted of one of two charges of grand larceny stemming from the pilfering of his mother’s estate because he had taken a $2 million commission for the sale of the Hassam painting. Marshall and his convicted codefendant, Astor’s former estate lawyer Francis X. Morrissey, Jr., are currently appealing their convictions.
After Marshall’s conviction, the contest over Astor’s 2002 last will and testament, which had been postponed pending the outcome of the criminal trial, continued. Under Astor’s 2002 will, Marshall stood to inherit tens of millions of dollars, with most of those millions slated to pass to charity after he died. However, Marshall reportedly wanted more. He and his lawyer, Francis X. Morrissey, Jr., allegedly convinced the elderly dementia stricken Astor to sign a series of codicils to the 2002 will. The codicils resulted in Marshall being designated as executor of his mother’s estate and gave Marshall an additional $60 million which Astor had previously designated for charity. The codicils also would have allowed Marshall to leave the bulk of Astor’s fortune to whomever he desired (in particular, his younger wife Charlene, whom Astor reportedly detested) instead of to charity.
On March 28, 2012, after two and a half years of negotiating, the parties finally reached a global settlement that was accepted by the judge. The settlement provided that Astor’s 2002 will was accepted as the valid one, but not the three codicils to that will that came afterwards. Even without the codicils Marshall would have netted around $70 million if not for all of his shenanigans. However, the delay caused by all of the fighting resulted in much of the real estate Marshall inherited to be sold after the real estate bubble had already popped. Marshall’s misdeeds also resulted in outstanding judgments against him for legal fees of $11.6 million, restitution in the amount of $12.3 million paid to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for the costs spent prosecuting Marshall and continuing legal fees for his criminal conviction appeal. So how much did Marshall end up with? Marshall’s take dwindled to approximately $3 million in addition to a one-to-three year jail sentence that is hanging over his head – presuming the 87-year-old survives the appeals process.
So who were the big winners as a result of the will contest? Each of Astor’s grandsons received $1 million and her great-grandchildren and a few others close to the wealthy socialite received lesser amounts. The bulk of the large fortune will now pass directly to several New York charities. However, unlike what would have happened if the 2002 will was upheld in its totality, these charities will not have to wait until Marshall dies to receive their generous bequests.
Seniors lose an estimated $3 billion a year to financial abuse. Sadly, senior citizens are often tempting targets for greedy family members, caregivers and other ne’er do wells – even those with only a small home and modest retirement account. Someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is all too easily coaxed into changing their will, trust, deed, or bank account to benefit the charlatan. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to overcome these changes because undue influence and other forms of exploitation are hard to prove. Criminal prosecutions of offenders like Marshall are extraordinarily rare due to lack of time, money and resources that prosecutor offices have to devote to such crimes. Most of the perpetrators escape justice because at the time their crimes are committed their victims are of questionable competence, near death, and unable to speak for themselves.
Financially exploitation of the elderly can happen in your family too. If you become aware that someone is taking advantage of an elderly loved one to coerce a change to an estate plan or otherwise exploit them, do not waste time hoping that criminal prosecution will eventually bring justice. Speak with an experienced Houston probate litigation attorney to see what options you have to help honor the true wishes of the loved one who was victimized. Do not let your loved ones be victimized like Brooke Astor. Fill out a contact form for the Houston probate litigation attorneys at Romano & Sumner, LLC to receive a free consultation.