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The Astor Estate Plan Debacle: A Cautionary Tale



This week’s obituary columns in most major national newspapers (Are those things still being printed on paper? With ink?) described the unfortunate and sad events that marked the life of the late Anthony Marshall, the son of the legendary New York philanthropist Brook Astor. Mr. Marshall, a man of considerable accomplishments in his early life, embarked on a path of apparently greed fueled manipulation of his mother in order to amend her will and increase his share in her estate.  There were many obituaries, but they all had the same theme – fraud (http://bloom.bg/1v6fiz4 ; http://wapo.st/1rP8Zjh ; http://nyti.ms/1rP8lCq .)

The story of the Astor estate was filled with myriad examples of the best of the worst. Mr. Marshall was accused of unduly influencing his mother and taking advantage of her worsening dementia in order to increase his share of her estate as well as increase payments to himself for managing her financial affairs. To make matters appear even more devoid of any genuine filial devotion, Mr. Marshall faced criminal charges for grand larceny, falsifying business reports and a host of other charges (http://reut.rs/HnZ1yF ). Mr. Marshall was also accused by his own son (filial devotion and the utter absence of it seem to be a recurring theme for the Astor clan) of keeping Ms. Astor in squalid conditions during her final years.

Ultimately, Mr. Marshall was sentenced to jail time for the criminal charges but only served eight weeks due to his ill health. In the matter of Brook Astor’s estate, Mr. Marshall received a much reduced sum of $14 million. Here’s the real kicker – in Ms. Astor’s original will (before the bogus codicils), Mr. Marshall would have received almost $70 million. In the words of that great American observer of contemporary culture, Homer Simpson, ‘Doh!’ (Engage in some schadenfreude: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2012/03/astor-settlement-anthony-marshall-reaction-brooke-charlene .)

It wasn’t just Mr. Marshall whose life was upended in this terrible tale. Ms. Astor’s estate lawyer was also convicted. In keeping with the upbeat theme (!) of this story, Mr. Francis Morrissey Jr. , the attorney in question, was charged with manipulations, forgeries and undue influence. Oh my! It’s like a dark and twisted Wizard of Oz. Except the yellow brick road leads straight to litigation.

This entire melodrama is a cautionary tale for families as they complete their estate plans. Lesson 1: Talk to your family and friends, anyone who will be involved in your estate. The more you communicate your wishes, the better off you and your heirs will be. Lesson 2: Make sure you have an estate planning attorney you can trust. Estate planning is not just about the documents produced but about the process of communicating your goals, values and wishes to your attorney who can make sure your estate plan reflects them properly. Lesson 3: If you have millions, try not to waste them on litigation.

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