July 14, 2016

Undue Influence by a Child

A child is free to assist a parent with drafting their estate plan. However, a child cannot exert undue influence on the parent. A recent unpublished opinion involved the latter scenario for the late Elizabeth Plott.

The opening paragraph summarized the case as follows: 

"The probate court invalidated a trust amendment drafted by one of the beneficiaries—a lawyer who effectively disinherited her sibling. There is no credible evidence that the amendment manifests the intent of the beneficiaries' elderly mother. As the trial court found, the evidence "overwhelmingly establishes that the 2007 Trust Amendment is the product of undue influence."  

Key v. Tyler, Los Angeles Co. Superior Court Case # BP131447

The opinion did not present the child, Elizabeth Plott Tyler (appellant), a California attorney, and the estate planning attorney, Allan Cutrow, in a positive light. Tyler & Wilson was Ms. Tyler's law firm and MSK was Mr. Cutrow's law firm.

For example the opinion stated:

"Steege reiterated at trial that Mrs. Plott stated, more than once, that she did not trust appellant. This is because Mrs. Plott wanted to do things her way, but appellant "had her agenda" and would do things differently, which upset Mrs. Plott when she learned of it. Appellant recalled that Mrs. Plott balked at signing checks for appellant's legal bills, provoking appellant to "use[ ] my scary yelling tone." When appellant walked out of the meeting, Mrs. Plott signed the checks. At trial, appellant denied ever raising her voice at Mrs. Plott, which was contradicted by her deposition, when appellant answered, "Yes, I'm sure I did on some occasions."

Later in the opinion: 

"There is no shortage of evidence that appellant actually participated in the preparation of the Trust amendment in 2007, personally and by giving directions to others. Drafts prepared by MSK were sent to Tyler & Wilson, not to Mrs. Plott. During the drafting period, Cutrow did not communicate with Mrs. Plott in person, by telephone, by letter or by e-mail. In February 2007, appellant wrote to Cutrow, "After we left your office last time, my mother told me that she was okay with giving me a controlling interest in the business like we discussed, that she did not want to do that with my sister." Cutrow did not meet alone with Mrs. Plott, to confirm that the drafting instructions he received were what Mrs. Plott wanted, as opposed to what appellant wanted. Tyler & Wilson billing records show that appellant's employee Stajduhar attended both the presigning meeting and the meeting at which the Amendment was executed." 

The opinion mentioned that "the Plott nursing home businesses were sold for $55 million at a probate court auction." Due to the high-net worth of the trust estate, I would expect further appeals.