April 10, 2012
Till Death Do I Inherit
The California State Bar Court Review Department has recommended that an attorney be disbarred for taking advantage of a client who had retained her to help him plan his estate. It turned out that she had a plan for his estate -- to inherit it a piece of it herself.
The attorney became romantically involved with a client who was 85 years old and suffering from emphysema and terminal cancer. She was 31 years his junior. She "married him shortly before he died, after filing a false confidential marriage license." She misappropriated nearly $340,000 of his assets upon his death.
The review department summarized its basis for the recommendation:
In simple terms, [the attorney] took financial advantage of a sick, elderly client - conduct the hearing judge rightly called "heartless and egregious." Given [her] lack of insight, we agree with the hearing judge that "disbarment is the only adequate means of protecting the public from further wrongdoing."
The client had family in Norway and assets of over a million dollars. He transferred the nearly $340,000 to a joint account that he opened with the attorney. The transfer was to her "as his attorney, to use for his care." As his health deteriorated, the attorney promised to take care of him. Although the Norwegian relatives were aware of the transfer of funnds, they understood that the money would be used for the client's care and that the unused portion would be returned.
When the attorney told the client that she wanted to marry him, he agreed. The confidential marriage application was intended to conceal the marriage from her minor daughter and the client's Norwegian relatives. The application falsely stated that they were living together.
After the marriage, the client told his relatives that he was "fed up" with the spouse-attorney because she was not taking care of him as promised. He moved into a senior care facility. She brought him home for the weekend but he did not appear well. She took him to the hospital but did not stay with him. He died the next day.
The hearing officer found that the attorney had the client cremated against his wishes. His will had donated his body to medical science.
The attorney moved the joint funds into her own bank account and filed a petition to remove the Norwegian nieces as co-trustees of the trust created for the client. The court denied the petition and imposed sanctions on the attorney. The nieces filed a bar complaint.
The attorney then filed a first amended spousal property petition. The court granted summary judgment against the attorney because the false application rendered the marriage void. The attorney appealed. The First District Court of Appeal affirmed and referred its opinion to the State Bar.
The attorney had no prior discipline in thirty years of practice. (Mike Frisch)
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