Ken Thompson Estate Litigation Takes a Turn as Wife Relinquishes Assets

After nearly a year in litigation, former Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson's wife filed papers relinquishing all money and personal property left to her in her husband's estate. Just who is Ken Thompson, and what went wrong after his death last October?

Attorney Ken Thompson was Brooklyn's first African American District Attorney. Last October he passed away from cancer at the age of 50. He left behind a wife, two children, and a grieving mother. He was a renowned attorney just starting out in his political career when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that took less than 6 months to kill him. 

But the tragedy does not end there. 

Just prior to Mr. Thompson's passing, he drafted Estate Planning documents that were allegedly in direct conflict with previous estate planning documents, drafted in 2008. The new documents cut out his mother and siblings and left everything to his wife. 

--Lesson number one from your trust attorney: Do NOT encourage death bed estate planning that unduly benefits one person over another - especially when that estate planning directly contradicts a prior will or trust. This is an almost sure way to end up in court, paying out a hefty chunk of your inheritance to attorneys. --

Upon realizing what had happened, Thompson's mother immediately sued her son's wife, accusing her of "coercing" Thompson to sign a "deathbed will" that left the wife his entire estate. 

Thompson’s mother Clara, a former NYPD police officer, alleged that her daughter in law Lu-Shawn destroyed an earlier will that she believed left large bequests to multiple family members, including Thompson's mother.  Clara also accused Lu-Shawn of being a "spend-thrift" and leaving several million dollars of assets out of the probate filing. 

Mr. Thompson had apparently amassed large property holdings, not to mention valuable personal property and bank accounts during his career as a prestigious trial attorney. His wife's recent "relinquishment" of rights does not include any property rights. 

Ken Thompson's family has no doubt endured severe emotional stress and heartbreak over his death and the ensuing estate litigation. If there's anything we can take from this story it's this: avoid death bed estate planning, especially when it comes to changing a previous will or trust. 

For questions about Estate Planning or Contesting a Will or Trust, contact our East Bay Trust and Estate Law Firm at 925-322-1795. 

S-Town: The Truth behind the Guardianship of Mary Grace McLemore

For those of you who are fans - or at least avid listeners to the hit podcast "S-Town," you may be left with a few questions:

  • What happened to Mary Grace? 
  • Where is the gold??
  • Did Cousin Rita have something to gain?
  • What happened to all those dogs?

I can't answer these questions definitively, but a recent examination of Mary Grace McLemore's Conservatorship/Guardianship file from the Bibb County Probate Court sheds light on a few of them.

Now, first I'll say that as an attorney who specializes in Conservatorships, as soon as John mention Mary Grace had dementia, I immediately wondered if he was her Conservator. For clarification, a "conservatorship" is equivalent to a guardianship for an adult. Conservatorships allow one person - the Conservator -to manage medical and financial affairs for another, usually a person with dementia or related illness. All John's trips to visit his lawyer - one B. Boozer Downs, Jr. - led me to believe a Conservatorship might be in place.

Despite my suppositions, a review of Mary Grace's file revealed that John did not have Conservatorship over Mary Grace, but was her "agent" under a power of attorney. It appears that Mary Grace signed the power of attorney very close to the time she was diagnosed with dementia, which legally can be very risky. However, with no other close family besides John, a lawsuit would have seemed unlikely.

A conservatorship proceeding was not initiated until after John's suicide, when Mary Grace's second cousin, Rita Lawrence, petitioned the court to become Conservator of both Mary Grace's "person," and her "estate." A Conservatorship of the Person would allow Rita to manage health and medical decisions for Mary Grace, while Conservatorship of the Estate would giv her control over Mary Grace's financial affairs. 

Now, let's start with perhaps the biggest curiosity of S-Town: What happened to the Gold?

Apologies if I got you too excited - I too was hoping Mary Grace's Conservatorship file, which contains a detailed accounting of all her expenses and income, would show signs of a gold discovery. Alas, it was not so. Even a hint of mysterious funds was not to be found. Instead, Rita was lending money to Mary Grace (or rather her conservatorship bank account) so that she could pay for expenses incurred prior to the sale of her property.

If Mary Grace didn't have any gold, what assets did she have?

Other than the property Mary Grace and John lived on - a vast 123 acres of mostly forested land, Mary Grace had a paltry $98 in her bank account when John passed away. According to the Conservatorship accounting, Mary Grace did have a monthly income of about $2,000 from Social Security and VA benefits. 

On August 12, 2016 Burt Holdings (ironically owned by rumored-but-not murderer Kaleb's father) bought Mary Grace's property for $280,000. The funds from the property sale would have gone directly to Mary Grace's conservatorship account, to be used for her care. If anything is left over, it would be inherited by her heirs.

What happened to Mary Grace after Rita became Conservator?

When listening to the show, I concluded that Mary Grace had gone to Florida to live with Rita (or Reta). But that was not the case, at least for the following year after John's death. From shortly after John's suicide to the end of the Conservatorship accounting in July 2016, Mary Grace still resided in Alabama, just 7 miles away from her home with John. She was apparently sent to live with a full time caregiver. 

This fact would certainly quell any fears Tyler Goodson had about Mary Grace being taken away. It's unclear exactly who the caregiver is in relation to the family, or how she ended up being the one to care for Mary Grace, but it seems to me like the small town equivalent of placing a Conservatee in a residential living facility. 

Is Mary Grace in a better situation than she was with John?

It is unclear as to whether or not Mary Grace is happier and receiving superior care. Rita reports to the court that Mary Grace is "thriving" in her new environment, and I certainly hope she is. It's also unclear if Mary Grace was being properly cared for by John. According to the Conservatorship documents, the Woodstock property had to be sprayed for fleas on at least two different occasions after John's death. This is a bad sign in general, but we of course have to take into account the many dogs that lived with them. Which brings us to the question...

What happened to all those Dogs?

Those of you who listened to the podcast will remember that John said he had quite a few dogs. According to Mary Grace's file, she paid $60 in August of 2015 to remove 10 dogs from the property. Presumably someone took care of the dogs after John died - was it Tyler? Sadly, many of those dogs probably did not survive the year.

Did Cousin Rita have something to gain?

S-Town inspired a bit of a conspiracy around Rita's presence in Mary Grace's life. In fact, many conservatorship cases can turn in to hotly contested matters where one party is in fact out to gain something for themselves. After a review of her file, however, I have to say that in this particular matter, that does not appear to be the case. In fact, due to the many criminal counts Tyler is being tried for, it appears that Tyler, and John by default, are the ones guilty of wreaking havoc in the Conservatorship case. Why John? Because he killed himself in what was likely a traumatizing event for Tyler - and furthermore neglected to do a will leaving Tyler what he'd supposedly promised to him. Had John done a will, Tyler likely would have gotten more closure and been able to move forward with his life. 

Now, that's not to say that Rita did everything for Mary Grace out of sheer love and kindness. She did get paid for her time. This is normal for Conservators, however. If the Conservator is a child of the Conservatee, he or she may not seek payment, but other relatives typically do. In Bibb County the rate is $18/hr, while here in Northern California the rate ranges between $25-$40/hr, depending on the county. Still, assuming Rita never found any gold, she certainly did not become rich by stepping in to help Mary Grace. Moreover, Rita appears to be the only relatively young family member Mary Grace had. Two other relatives live in Alabama - cousins Elna and Kay. They appear to be Mary Grace's direct heirs, and were asked to sign off on the sale of her property. Elna and Kay are likely quite old themselves, and therefore not in a position to care for Mary Grace. So Rita was the best choice.

So, now you know what happened to Mary Grace after John's death, and perhaps have a little more insight into the story of John McLemore and S-Town, also commonly called Woodstock, Alabama.

For more information about Conservatorship, contact my Walnut Creek Elder Law Office at 925-322-1795.

 

Navigating the Legal System: Katherine Jackson and How to Fight Elder Abuse

 

 

Michael Jackson's Mother claims Elder Abuse: What are her legal options?

Michael Jackson's 86 year old mother Katherine filed legal documents Wednesday claiming her former driver and nephew in law, Trent Jackson, had subjected her to years of elder abuse. She requested a restraining order, which was temporarily granted by the court, and will likely be permanently approved. 

The caregiver to Michael Jackson's three children, Prince, Paris and Blanket, accused her nephew of both financial and emotional elder abuse, including isolation from other family members. 

Elder abuse can take on a variety of different forms. The most prevalent forms I see in my practice are financial elder abuse and emotional elder abuse - which often includes isolation from family and friends. Katherine accuses Trent Jackson of both. Before we get in to the legal ways to combat elder abuse, let's first address what elder abuse looks like, using Ms. Jackson's case an example.

What forms can Elder Abuse take?

Financial Elder Abuse 

Infiltrating Business and Personal Affairs. The lawsuit accuses Trent Jackson of "infiltrating" all aspects of Ms. Jackson's affairs, even referring to himself as her "house manager." When a family member or friend becomes intimately involved in the affairs of a much older individual, their ability to manipulate or "unduly" influence is often greater. This is because older people are often more vulnerable mentally, physically, and emotionally. 

Accessing Bank Accounts. Katherine's lawsuit accuses her nephew of accessing her bank accounts without permission. According to the lawsuit, her nephew also used her credit cards without approval. In most cases of elder abuse, the alleged abuser does not outright "steal" funds from the elder. Instead, they apply pressure or manipulate the older individual to directly hand over funds or property. In Ms. Jackson's case, it is likely that Trent was given some permission to use bank or credit card accounts, and simply used the privilege beyond the scope of Ms. Jackson's intention. 

Emotional Elder Abuse

Isolation. The lawsuit claims that Katherine's nephew had begun to "regulate Mrs. Jackson’s interactions with her children — screening phone calls, not relaying messages, not allowing privacy during visits or phone calls." Isolation is a hallmark sign of elder abuse. 

Manipulation. Manipulation is most often inherent in both financial and emotional elder abuse. In Ms. Jackson's case, the legal docs claim Trent manipulated her in several different ways. First, was his manipulative behavior regarding financial affairs. This is the most common type of manipulation I see in cases of elder abuse. Trent even went so far as to convince Katherine not to press charges against him. The lawsuit claims Trent "preyed upon her known kindness" by "crying and begging her not to report him," even when Adult Protective Services or the Police had already arrived. 

Fear and Confusion. Katherine claims that Trent subjected her to significant mental abuse that left her “in a constant state of fear and confusion.” In the lawsuit she calls Trent an "abusive con-man."

What are your Legal Options to combat Elder Abuse in California?

Legal options for Elder Abuse depend on whether the victim is living or deceased. 

If the Victim is Living, there are 3 legal ways to combat Elder Abuse in the Civil and Probate Courts.

If the Victim is deceased, a Financial Elder Abuse lawsuit is the best legal route for pursuing Justice and financial retribution. 

1. Restraining Order

Katherine Jackson chose the route of the Restraining Order. This is the most direct way to remove an unwanted or abusive person from an elder's life. A restraining order is often employed when the elder knows they are being abused and wants to cut all ties with the abuser. In many cases, the alleged or suspected abuser is a close family member, and it is not ideal for them to be cut out completely. It is also common that the victim of abuse has a mental impairment such as Alzheimer's or dementia and does not fully comprehend his or her surroundings. In such instances, a Conservatorship is the best legal way to combat elder abuse and protect the elder. 

2. Conservatorship

If financial, emotional, or physical elder abuse of an elder with dementia or other serious cognitive impairment is occurring (or suspected), a Conservatorship may be necessary. A conservatorship is when the court grants a person legal authority over the medical and financial decisions of another person. This allows the person named as conservator to take action to protect either the finances or the health (or both) of the elder (conservatee). A Conservatorship is an expensive and time consuming endeavor which is generally used only when no other options are available. 

3. Elder Abuse Lawsuit

Elder abuse lawsuits can be filed in the probate court if the alleged victim is living or deceased. Most elder abuse lawsuits within the probate courts are financial elder abuse cases where one party is seeking financial retribution for crimes or fraud committed in the past. An elder abuse claim may accompany a Conservatorship, but in many cases financial elder abuse lawsuits are filed after the alleged victim has passed. Often this is because the abuses are not discovered until later. The most common type of financial elder abuse claim I see is when an individual changes his/her trust or will late in life, either after or around a diagnosis of dementia (or similar cognitive impairment) and at the behest of a close family member or caregiver. However, this is by no means the only form that elder abuse takes. 

The purpose of the elder abuse lawsuit is to seek financial retribution. In combination with a Conservatorship, financial justice and protection can both be sought through the probate court system. 

In Katherine Jackson's case, she will likely not pursue an Elder Abuse lawsuit. Most elderly persons in her situation seek to remove the person from their lives and reduce any further stress. It is unlikely that her nephew has any money of his own, and therefore an elder abuse lawsuit would not significantly benefit Ms. Jackson, and would result in more stress and attorney's fees. 

For questions about Elder Abuse or Conservatorships, contact my SF East Bay Elder Law Firm at 925-322-1795 for a consultation.