Did Groucho Marx Have Estate Planning and Elder Care Problems?

Julius Henry Marx, better known as Groucho, died 42 years ago on Aug. 19, 1977, at age 86. Groucho teamed with three of his four brothers—Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo—to become stars of vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio and television. (A fifth brother, Gummo, wasn’t part of the act).

PBS News Hours’ recent article, “How Groucho Marx fell prey to elder abuse” reports that the legal battles over Groucho’s money and possessions went on long after he died. The unrest of his last few years is familiar to adult children concerned with the well-being of their elderly parents.

Groucho’s relationships with his son Arthur and daughter Miriam (children from his first marriage) were also strained for various reasons. To add flame to the fire, Arthur wrote several books based on life in the Marx family, and Groucho threatened litigation over his portrayal in one of Arthur’s memoirs.

In the last few years of his life, Groucho had a companion, Erin Fleming, who was accused of elder abuse. Fleming was Groucho’s secretary-manager and was responsible for his popular comeback in the early 1970s. Fleming successfully campaigned for the Marx Brothers to receive a special Academy Award in 1974. In his acceptance speech, Groucho thanked “Erin Fleming, who makes my life worth living and who understands all my jokes.” However, some of Groucho’s friends thought that Fleming was pushing him too hard to perform, given his age and memory loss.

In 1974, Fleming was appointed his guardian and temporary conservator of an estate worth an estimated $2-$4 million. In 1975, Groucho even tried to adopt her, until a psychologist said he was not mentally competent.

Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son, sued Fleming for having a harmful and destructive influence on his father, including threatening his well-being and being abusive. He also claimed that she pushed Groucho to perform, against his best interest, for her own financial gain. In Groucho’s final days, a judge appointed the 72-year-old Nat Perrin, a close pal of Groucho’s and co-writer of the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film, “Duck Soup,” as temporary conservator of Groucho’s well-being and estate. Later, his grandson, Andrew, was named permanent conservator.

Even after he died, litigation concerning Groucho’s estate went on into the early 1980s. Groucho left most of his estate to his children but gave control of his name, image and movie rights to Fleming—an issue of dispute that led to substantial legal battles.

The court found in favor of Groucho’s children and ordered Fleming to pay $472,000, which she bilked from Groucho’s bank accounts, while she worked for him. Fleming committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 61.

In the 1970s, the term “elder abuse” had not been used, even though it existed. Today, elder abuse is a growing problem. There’s a long list of harmful activities, including physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological forms of abuse and neglect, as well as the theft or withholding of financial assets needed to live.

In identifying when elder abuse may be happening, it is important to keep in mind that some elders may be more susceptible than others due to risk factors. These include functional dependence or disability, poor physical health, cognitive impairment and dementia, low income, financial dependence, race or ethnicity, gender, and age.

Perpetrators also have their own set of risk factors, which include mental illness, substance abuse, relationship status (spouse/partners are often the most common perpetrators of emotional and physical elder abuse), and the abuser’s potential dependency on their victims for emotional support, financial help, housing and other forms of assistance.

Get some expert legal and medical advice on estate planning and the creation of a living will so that your wishes are known, and you and your estate are protected properly.

Reference: PBS News Hour (August 19, 2019) “How Groucho Marx fell prey to elder abuse” 

How Much Money Do I Need to Put into a Special Needs Trust for my Child?

One of the toughest things about planning for a child with special needs is trying to calculate the amount of money it’s going to take to provide both while the parents are alive and after the parents pass away.

Kiplinger’s recent article asks “How Much Should Go into Your Special Needs Trust?” The article explains that it’s not uncommon for folks to have done some estate planning but not necessarily special needs estate planning, even if it’s something they need for their loved ones. More importantly, they haven’t thought about how much money they should earmark to fund that trust someday or any other plan to provide for their family member and which assets would be the best to use.

Special needs estate planning involves creating a special needs trust (SNT) that allows a person with a disability to continue to receive certain public benefits. Typically, ownership of assets more than $2,000 would make the individual ineligible for certain public benefits. Assets held in a special needs trust don’t count toward this amount.

A child with special needs can generate multiple expenses. The precise amount will be based on the needs and lifestyle of the family and the child’s capabilities. Public program benefits can in many cases offset many of the above-mentioned costs. However, these benefits likely will not cover the entire cost of care.

When the parents die, the budget needed to care for the child often must be increased because the things the parents did must be monetized. For instance, the parents likely managed and coordinated the child’s care holistically. After they pass, a care manager may need to be compensated to do the same thing. There are also legal and trust administration expenses to think about.

An SNT usually isn’t funded until the parents’ death. At that time, the trust would need to file a tax return each year and pay taxes on any income made by the trust assets.

It is vital to conduct a complete analysis of the future costs to provide for a child with special needs so that parents can start saving and making adjustments in their planning. If this is something you are concerned about, speak with an elder law or estate planning attorney about creating a special needs trust.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 10, 2019) “How Much Should Go into Your Special Needs Trust?”

What Do I Need to Know About Special Needs Trusts?

One of the hardest issues in planning for a child with special needs is trying to calculate how much money it’s going to cost to provide for the child, both while the parents are alive, and after the parents die. A recent Kiplinger’s article asks “How Much Should Go into Your Special Needs Trust?” As the article explains, a special needs trust, when properly established and managed, lets someone with a disability continue getting certain public benefits.

Even if the child isn’t getting benefits, families may still want the money protected from the child’s financial choices or those who may try to take advantage of them. A trustee can help manage the assets and make distributions to the child with special needs to supplement their lifestyle beyond what public program benefits provide.

A child with special needs can have some expenses that are not usually encountered when raising a typically developing child, and the amount will depend on the needs and lifestyle of the family and the child’s capabilities. One of the biggest unknowns is the cost of housing. If the plan is for the child to live in a private group home-type situation, there are options. Some involve the purchase of a condo in a building with services for those with special needs. Many families also add into the budget eating out once a week, computers and phones and other items. In determining how much to fund a special needs trust, parents must remember that, after their death, the child’s budget must increase to monetize for things the parents did for the child, such as care coordination and advocacy.

As mentioned earlier in the article, special needs individuals may qualify for public benefits that can offset some of the basic costs for a child with special needs. For example, the child may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), as well as a Section 8 housing voucher and SNAP food assistance. When the parents retire, SSI is typically replaced with Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which is one-half the parent’s payment. When the parent dies, this payment becomes three-quarters of that amount. At that time, Adult Family/Foster Care may be an option to anticipate. Parents should also consider the possibility that the child may also be working and bringing in additional income (minus whatever benefits may be offset by this income).

It is vital to do a complete analysis of the future costs to provide for a child with special needs, so parents can start saving and making adjustments in their planning right away. The laws on this planning vary from state to state, so be sure to contact an experienced elder law attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 10, 2019) “How Much Should Go into Your Special Needs Trust?”

How Do I Estate Plan for a Child with Special Needs?

Estate planning is important for everyone, but it’s even more crucial for a family with a child who has special needs. It’s difficult to create an estate plan for children with special needs, because you don’t know what type of care he will need, or the type of government benefits for which she’ll be eligible, when she turns 18. People frequently become overwhelmed about special needs planning, because they don’t have a clear picture of what their children will need in the future.

A recent Forbes article, “Special Needs Kids Require Specialized Estate Planning,” says that if you have a child with special needs, it’s critical that you look at your planning options with your estate planning attorney and discuss your child’s health, capabilities and prognosis. You can then customize a plan that works for your child, with as much flexibility as possible.

Those with enough assets often would rather not to have their child get any government benefits and will set aside an amount to cover all the child’s living expenses in trust. Since the parents aren’t concerned with government benefits, the trust can be a discretionary trust that will distribute income and principal at the trustee’s discretion for the benefit of the child throughout the child’s life.

If there is a good chance the child will get government benefits, many parents create special needs trust to supplement (not replace) the government benefits that the child will receive. The trust must be drafted, so the child doesn’t become ineligible for the government benefits. These benefits provide for the child’s basic needs like a place to live, so the special needs trust will defray the cost of extras such as trips and entertainment.

If the parents can’t determine if their child will be eligible for government benefits, another option is for the parents to give their current trustees the authority to create a separate special needs trust at the time of the surviving parent’s death. Therefore, if the child is receiving benefits, the trustee can create the trust at that time, with the goal of preserving the child’s benefits.

All these trusts can be funded now. The parents can establish the trust and transfer cash or other assets to it, or the trust can be created now and left empty until a parent passes away. At that point, money can move into the trust from the parent’s estate, another trust or from a life insurance policy.

Some parents elect not to create a trust for their child and to disinherit him completely. The thinking is that the child can be supported solely by government benefits. Others go with a combination approach. They disinherit the special needs child and leave more assets to their other children, with the understanding that the other children will care for the special needs child. However, this isn’t a great idea. The siblings have no legal obligation to care for his or her sibling with special needs, just a moral one. If the child who inherited the bulk of the estate gets divorced, the assets are also susceptible to division upon divorce. Finally, the assets are liable to a creditor’s claim, if the child is sued.

Estate planning for a child with special needs can be hard, so get a flexible plan in place that will provide peace of mind.

Reference: Forbes (March 27, 2019) “Special Needs Kids Require Specialized Estate Planning”

 

How Can I Protect My Child’s Inheritance, If They Have a Substance Abuse Problem?

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Selecting the Right Trustee and Protector for a Substance Abuse Trust,” explains that selecting the trustee for a substance abuse trust should start with a good idea of the duties they will perform. Next, find a person or institutional trustee that’s most qualified to fulfill those obligations to ensure that the child’s inheritance is protected. Parents should then think about naming a trust protector, who serves in a supervisory role to ensure that the trust is being properly administered.

The basic duties of a trustee include a fiduciary duty to administer the trust in good faith and in accordance with its terms and purposes; loyalty to the beneficiaries, by acting solely in their interests; invest the trust property prudently by considering the purposes, terms, distributional requirements, and other circumstances of the trust; and to act impartially, when there are multiple beneficiaries.

There may also be special duties of the trustee. For a child with a substance use disorder, the trustee’s duties for distributions could be linked specifically to paying for the costs of rehab, job training, professional service fees and other items that are part of the treatment plan developed by the beneficiary’s treatment team. Tying distributions into the treatment plan would mean the trustee, and maybe someone familiar with treatment management, would have to work closely with the treatment team to carry out the plan.

If the trust has incentive clauses, the trustee will also have to determine if the beneficiary has attained the goal (like sobriety for a certain period of time) and if so, the benefit to which he or she’s entitled. These can be hard to administer, since it can be hard to verify if the beneficiary has actually met the goals.

If the beneficiary is eligible for government program benefits, like SSI or Medicaid or from private health insurance, another set of duties will be placed upon the trustee to make certain that distributions won’t be classified as “maintenance” or “support.” If so, it could result in the child being declared ineligible. Since distributions from the trust are meant only to supplement the benefits that SSI or Medicaid is providing (and not duplicate or supplant them), the trustee will have to closely watch the uses of the distributions, so they aren’t support and maintenance.

You must next look at potential candidates to see who’s best suited for the role of trustee. There are two categories of trustees: individual and institutional. Individual trustees can include family members. The advantage here is that they’ll know the beneficiary and can give more personalized service than an institutional trustee. However, appointing a family member or friend as trustee may ruin the relationship, if the trustee denies the beneficiary’s demands.

You can appoint a licensed private fiduciary, trust company, bank trust department, or a corporate trustee connected to a brokerage firm to serve as the trustee to avoid possible family conflicts. However, some institutional trustees may be more focused on their investment performance, than on tending to the mental and physical needs of their beneficiaries. In the case of a substance abuse trust, “hands-on” involvement with the beneficiary is vital.

One alternative may be to appoint an individual and an institutional company to serve as co-trustees. The individual could be personally involved with the beneficiary and their treatment plan, and the professional trustee could deal with and handle the investments. However, both trustees should make distribution decisions. The best type of professional trustee for a substance abuse trust, would be one that works primarily in administering special needs trusts. These are created for the benefit of children with disabilities. These trustees will be knowledgeable about SSI and Medicaid eligibility rules.

A trust protector, depending on applicable state law, acts as the settlor’s surrogate. This continues even after the settlor dies. This allows the trust to adapt to changing circumstances. The trust protector could also direct the trustee’s actions concerning how the trust assets would be invested and could approve or deny proposed disbursements from the trust. The trustee would be obligated to comply with such directions, unless they would be manifestly contrary to the trust’s terms or a breach of the protector’s duties.

As far as a substance abuse trust, a trust protector can provide supervision, if the trustee doesn’t possess experience in coordinating trust distributions with a substance abuse treatment plan, or with monitoring the beneficiary’s eligibility for government aid programs. Instead of the trustee appointing agents to assist in these matters, the protector would actively monitor the progress of the beneficiary’s recovery and, if necessary, direct the trustee to engage a treatment manager for the beneficiary or an advocate to secure SSI and Medicaid benefits.

Support from all parties will help the beneficiary continue on the road to recovery, which is the ultimate goal of the trust.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 8, 2019) “Selecting the Right Trustee and Protector for a Substance Abuse Trust”