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Leaving a Legacy or Financial Abuse of the Elderly?

Many people use their estate plan to “leave a legacy.” A common example of this is making a gift to a charitable organization as part of a last will and testament. A person might, for instance, leave a gift to a university with instructions to establish a scholarship in his or her name. Some wealthier individuals might go so far as to establish a charitable foundation as part of their estate plan.

Then there are more unusual efforts at leaving a legacy that, unfortunately, often lead to expensive and unnecessary litigation. A recent case from Illinois presents one example. The case involved the estate of the late Virginia Rogers. In 2000, Rogers was a widow with no children or other immediate family. In a purported effort to continue her family name, Rogers signed a contract with her neighbor, George Dohrmann, whereby she would leave more than $5 million worth of property from her estate to him; in exchange, Dohrmann agreed to legally change the names of his two children to include the middle name “Rogers.”

Dohrmann apparently held up his end of the bargain. Rogers, however, did not amend her estate planning documents to reflect the terms of this supposed agreement. Instead, Rogers’ will left her estate to various friends, distant relatives and charities. In 2004, Rogers transferred ownership of her apartment-which Dohrmann claimed was part of the $5 million promised to him under the contract-to her living trust. By 2008 Rogers, who suffered from dementia, was judged legally incompetent to continue managing her own affairs.

In 2007, Dohrmann sued Rogers to enforce the terms of their purported agreement. The litigation continued against Rogers’ estate after she died. An Illinois trial court granted summary judgment to the estate, holding the contract was not enforceable as a matter of state law. In a decision issued on June 26 of this year, an Illinois appeals court agreed with the lower court.

The key defect with the contract, the appeals court noted, was the “grossly inadequate consideration” Dohrmann offered Rogers. In exchange for more than $5 million, all he offered was giving his sons an additional middle name. Dohrmann argued this was valuable consideration, as Rogers wished to perpetuate her family name. But as the court explained, “Dohrmann did not change the boys’ surnames to Rogers, nor even exchange their middle names for Rogers.” He simply gave the children a second middle name of “Rogers.”

The appeals court also pointed to the “circumstances of unfairness” surrounding the contract. Rogers was a widow in her 90s. Dohrmann was a highly educated surgeon. His attorney prepared the contract. The court clearly believed he took advantage of her advanced age and declining mental capacity.

The Best Protection
This is certainly an unusual case. But financial abuse of the elderly is a common problem in California. There are laws to protect against such abuse, but the best protection is a good estate plan. An experienced California estate planning attorney can help protect your assets while ensuring you leave a proper legacy. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions.

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