December 6, 2013

Care Custodian

California law generally prohibits a "care custodian" from being the beneficiary of a decedent's estate. Prob C § 21350(a)(6).

For example, Carl is the in-home attendant for Daniel, an elderly man who lacks the ability to take care of himself independently. Carl would be considered Daniels' care custodian and would generally prohibited be from inheriting through Daniel's estate whether via trust or will. Although if Carl is connected to Daniel through blood, marriage or other means per Prob C § 21351(a), the transfer is permissible. Similarly, if the will or trust "is reviewed by an independent attorney who (1) counsels the client (transferor) about the nature and consequences of the intended transfer, (2) attempts to determine if the intended consequence is the result of fraud, menace, duress, or undue influence, and (3) signs and delivers to the transferor an original certificate" of independent review, the transfer is permissible under this scenario as well.   

The rationale behind the law is that a dependent adult is often in a vulnerable position. He or she relies on the care custodian to assist them with daily life activities such as bathing, dressing, eating, etc. Naturally then, the dependent adult can easily be manipulated by the care custodian because "you do not bite the hand that feeds." This is not to conclude that all care custodians are conniving, rather the law simply reflects a natural consequence of the relationship. A dependent adult is in a vulnerable position.     

A recent superior court case revolved around the issue of a care custodian receiving an inheritance. According to the trial's transcript, William Kuhner wrote a trust in 2006 which left his entire estate to his daughter Donna Martens. In March 2009, Mr. Kuhner was diagnosed with end-stage congestive heart failure which necessitated continuous care. Thereafter, Ms. Martens hired a neighbor of her father's, Annette Rae Robinson, to be the in-home attendant, i.e. the care custodian. 

Mr. Kuhner's condition deteriorated to the point where a physician concluded on May 20, 2009 that he lacked the capacity to handle his finances. Regardless, Ms. Robinson took Mr. Kuhner to various attorneys in hopes of amending the 2006 trust. Furthermore, Ms. Robinson had Mr. Kuhner sign a quitclaim deed which transferred title to her, although the deed was incorrectly drafted as Ms. Robinson did not account for the fact that the home was owned by the trust and not Mr. Kuhner individually. 

According to the unpublished opinion, Ms. Robinson eventually was able to have Mr. Kuhner amend his trust.

"On June 30, 2009, while Robinson was present, Mr. Kuhner executed an amendment to the 2006 Trust (the 2009 Trust Amendment) that disinherited Ms. Martens, made a gift of $20,000 to Robinson, left all of Mr. Kuhner's real and personal property to Ms. Robinson, and made Ms. Robinson the successor trustee upon Mr. Kuhner's death. Mr. Kuhner died on July 14, 2009, two weeks after the 2009 Trust Amendment was executed."    

Ms. Robinson and Ms. Martens then litigated the issue of who was the beneficiary of Mr. Kuhner's estate. The 2006 trust gave the estate to Ms. Martens while the 2009 amendment gave the estate to Ms. Robinson. Eventually, the trial court judged sided with Ms. Martens, as Ms. Robinson was determined to be a care custodian. The decision was then upheld on appeal.

Author's Comment: The unpublished opinion does not cite any facts to support Ms. Robinson's claim that this was a permissible transfer. Her conduct is, at first blush, highly questionable. She seemingly coerced an infirm man to amend to his trust to cut out his daughter, to the benefit of herself, weeks away from dying. Hence I assume that Ms. Robinson's attorney at trial presented some facts to support her case which is not reflected in the unpublished opinion.