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MONEY TALK

Case of the `Black Widow' Triggers Strong Reactions

October 15, 2006|Liz Pulliam Weston | Special to The Times

Dear Readers: A recent column about a "black widow," who was taking over the substantial finances of a reader's grandfather and alienating the man from his family, sparked such interesting responses that I've devoted this week's column to them.

Dear Liz: I am an elder-law attorney who read with interest your response to the reader whose grandfather is involved with a "black widow."

This is a classic "undue influence" case, especially with the woman's track record of having previously drained another widower dry.

The family can petition for a conservatorship of the estate if the grandfather is unable to resist undue influence -- the test is not whether he is incompetent. This often results in controls being put in place that all can live with, and sometimes gets rid of the black widow.

These are hard-fought, expensive cases but better than having the grandfather left penniless by an opportunist. And leaving her to continue just encourages her -- this is already her second victim!

Answer: As you correctly note, family members don't always have to prove someone is incompetent in order to win control of his or her finances through a court-ordered conservatorship.

Instead the family can try to prove undue influence -- essentially that the person in question is doing things he wouldn't have done without the pressure of another party (in this case, the so-called black widow), and that he's lost the ability to resist her dominance.

But as you also note, conservatorship battles can get ugly, especially if Grandpa has enough wits about him to fight back, as appears to be the case.

The reader's in-laws had already consulted an attorney, who told them they weren't likely to win such a battle. Of course, another attorney might have given different advice, and this avenue may still be worth pursuing.

But the family needs to weigh the prospects of success against the strong likelihood of alienating Grandpa permanently and driving him further into the widow's arms.

Another attorney wrote in with a different suggestion:

Dear Liz: I am an attorney practicing in the area of probate and trust litigation who disagrees with your conclusion that the family cannot do anything to protect Granddad's money (and possibly the lineal family's inheritance).

Although I agree that during Granddad's lifetime the family may not be able to stop the black widow, they can make a record so that when Granddad passes on, they are in a position to go to court and try to "make things right."

The family should be advised to make a continuing private record of their grandfather's behavior, questionable statements, etc., so that a post-death challenge can be made in the event their grandfather lacked the capacity to make decisions or was being unduly influenced by the black widow.

A claim of undue influence can result in setting aside estate plan changes, beneficiary designations and even account withdrawals.

Answer: Your suggestion would avoid the bruising court battle during Granddad's lifetime, but it does presuppose that something will be left to fight over after his death.

In the previous case, the black widow had taken control of an elderly man's finances and left him penniless. If the money has been spent or the black widow skips town, getting anything back could be tough.

And finally, a perspective from the "other side."

Dear Liz: I've been reading your column for years and I always have to snicker through clenched teeth when future heirs become concerned about losing their expected inheritance.

Now that I'm approaching the "older gentleman" stage, I must ask the question: Why do you think that you are entitled to anything?

We've already given you birth, changed your diapers, encouraged you through school, put up with your failed marriage(s), and sent you money when we knew better and should have let you "grow up."

Now that we want to have some fun with the money that we have earned, usually the hard way, you are "concerned."

Let's play a new version of "Let's Make a Deal." We will sign over all of our assets to you today and you, in return, will care for all of our needs, personal and financial, until we die -- even if it costs you money. Of course, this will be put into a legal contract.

Any takers?

Answer: Actually, the arrangements you describe were not uncommon during Shakespeare's time.

Aging parents would seek out lawyers to draw up "maintenance agreements," which would transfer the parents' property to the adult children in exchange for the children agreeing to provide their elders' shelter, food and clothing.

Some of these agreements were incredibly specific about what the children had to provide, reflecting the parents' anxiety about the possibility of being neglected or dumped out on the street once the assets had been transferred, said Stephen Greenblatt, author of the 2004 biography "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare."

It's sad when greed outweighs family bonds, but the phenomenon is nothing new.

*

Liz Pulliam Weston is the author of the books "Your Credit Score" and "Deal With Your Debt," both published by Prentice Hall. She regrets that she cannot respond personally to inquiries. But questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon Blvd., No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or via the "Contact Liz" form at www.lizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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