The Ruling That Could Change Everything For Disabled People With Million-Dollar Trusts

A pissed-off judge, a $3 million inheritance, and a neglected autistic man

Marie's health would take a turn for the worse. In 2000, she tripped on ice and hurt her back. She never walked again.

Soon after, Brooks convinced Marie to move to a bigger place. She bought a corner condo in Trump Place. She placed a red leather sofa in the living room. Above it, she hung a painting of herself in a black evening gown, her trademark bun high on her head.

In 2003, Marie was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unable to care for Mark, then 14, she placed him in the Anderson Center for Autism in upstate New York. The nonprofit institution, which had been around for nearly 80 years, provided housing, schooling, and life-skills training.

Within two years, Marie was in the hospital. She was 85, and her trademark bun had grown disheveled. Streaks of mascara gave her raccoon eyes. She died in 2005 in the Florence Nightingale Health Center in Harlem, almost 10 years to the day after signing her will. Her estate was worth $12 million.

Since Brooks had died the year before, Platt and JP Morgan took over Mark's trust. The next year, fulfilling what he called a "deathbed" promise to Marie, Platt petitioned to become Mark's legal guardian.

The petition didn't find a warm reception in Judge Glen's courtroom. When she heard that Platt hadn't visited Mark, inquired about his needs, or spent any money on him, she adjourned the hearing. She then summoned JP Morgan to court to hear the bank's side of the story.

In October 2008—during the heart of the banking crisis—a JP Morgan representative appeared before the judge. Why hadn't the bank inquired about Mark's needs or spent the trust funds on him? Glen asked.

"We're a bank," Glen remembers the representative responding sheepishly. "What are we supposed to do? We don't know anything about people with intellectual disabilities and what they need." (JP Morgan declined comment on the case.)

"You hire people to manage people's money," the judge replied. "Hire people to find out what they need."

Glen ordered Platt and JP Morgan to visit Mark, meet with his caregivers, and figure out how the trust could be used to fulfill his needs—or hire a professional to make recommendations.

Families are often urged to hire banks to safeguard their children's trusts. A few institutions, including Wells Fargo and Merrill Lynch, have specially trained officers. But many have little expertise in actually helping the disabled.

That leaves people like Mark to slide under the radar of trust officers handling hundreds of funds, says Mark Haranzo, a partner at the New York law firm Withers Bergman. "The squeaky wheels are getting the attention and the silent ones are ignored," he says.

"Someone makes a judgment based on their own personal value system about whether someone needs something, and they never bother consulting a professional who understands quality of care and the bigger picture," says Ann Koerner, president of National Care Advisors. "If the trustee's not consulting with family or social workers or case managers or advocates for the client, they're probably not going to be making the best decision."

In some cases, Koerner suspects, banks pay out less than they should because commissions are based on the value of the trust. Big financial institutions may also not have the structure in place to pay for small, daily expenses.

"JP Morgan probably does a very good job in terms of being a responsible steward and investing, but it would probably be difficult for them to give that type of attention to think about ordering clothes for someone, paying a cable bill, getting a computer for them," says Kelly McDonald of Secured Futures Trust, a Phoenix, Arizona, nonprofit.

Ideally, the guardian and trustee serve as checks on each other. But in Mark's case, they were one and the same.

The Anderson Center for Autism sits on a sprawling, wooded campus near the Hudson River in Staatsburg, New York. Mark had lived there for five years by the time Robin Staver, a professional care manager the trustees hired, visited him two months after JP Morgan and Platt appeared in court.

Mark, who was 20, wore earmuffs to block noises that to him seemed painfully loud. He had dark, almond-shaped eyes, a delicate nose, and pouty lips that opened into a bright smile.

Staver had been a care manager for older adults and disabled people for two decades. Before she came to assess Mark's needs, no one had visited him at the school since before his mother died, and he'd never left the institution. When most residents went home for Christmas, Mark stayed behind. Anderson had no idea the young man was the beneficiary of a multimillion-dollar trust.

Mark needed help with basic tasks, like brushing his teeth and getting dressed. He didn't speak, but he seemed to respond to questions by using picture symbols and gestures.

Mark's medication may have actually made him worse, Staver discovered. Keppra, his anti-seizure medicine, has side effects that increase aggression. Mark would often spit, throw things, or hit himself, and had to be closely monitored. There was a time-released version of the medication with fewer side effects, but it wasn't covered by Medicaid.

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11 comments
sgreenovich
sgreenovich

I agree Determinedin (NY) but the responsibility of finding just judges is up to us. It is the same for finding people who will express our views politically. This really isn't even a difficult thing. Our political representatives only have to do what we ask them to they are literally trying to be popular with the people that put them into office. The same goes for the president his job is to lead and do the will of the people. Why is it so hard for political people to follow their word, do as they have promised and as the people who have faith in them have asked? Something is seriously wrong, and it may start with us.


http://www.jcohenmediation.com/div1.htm

DeterminedinNY
DeterminedinNY

This judge has restored some of my faith in the judicial system, I wish there were more like her.

JackForeigner
JackForeigner

CUNY Law dean and prof, eh?  No wonder!  That's one progressive institution.  Too bad their grads had the issues with passing the bar exam the first time around (industry standard); hopefully that's now been rectified (though it's certainly the case that bad lawyers exist anyway).  What a woman, wow!

AerOHead
AerOHead

I'll gladly join those giving thanks to -- and for -- the Honorable Judge Glen. My question is this: Why was Platt so able to take the money and run, but then claim family illness, etc. for not being able to do the job? Professionals routinely reassign their duties to others when they are unable to perform to standards. Platt said he won't be criticized by anyone. Well, I will most certainly criticize! It's because of sleazebags like him that lawyers get a bad name. Shame on you, Platt. I can almost understand that JP Morgan, as a corporation and dedicated to nothing other but the bottom line, might focus purely upon maximizing the trust, but you, as an attorney, have a sacred duty to work in your clients' best interests. It's too late now, but by rights I think Judge Glen should have ordered you to reimburse your ill-gotten commissions. They were, in truth, defrauding your client. I hope the fire is stoked up enough for the likes of you by the time you get there.

ally121
ally121

Thank you Judge Glen, for caring about people. I wish you had been the judge on my mother's case...she possibly would have been alive today. My mother was kidnapped by her guardian /attorney Mary Giordano, elder care attorney with Franchina and Giordano in Garden City, NY. Judge Joel Asarch insisted she go in a nursing home although I was able to care for her 24/7 in my home, deemed safe by the courts. They wanted what was left of her small estate, which had already been pillaged by Giordano. It always and only all about money, never about the people.

sunnykay1
sunnykay1

Thank you Judge Glen! The whole institution of guardianship needs more oversight nationwide. My family was never wealthy but I had a special needs younger brother -- and it was always a worry as to who would look out for my brother if he was our last family member. Sometimes in dark moments I think it was a blessing that Paul passed before my mother and I did. Perhaps if more people follow your footsteps and watch over the guardianship process, things will be better. But guardianship abuses are everywhere, and there is a long way to go.

MarkNicholas
MarkNicholas

Go Judge Glen, go! Thank you! You are a hero to every parent of a special needs child (like me).

lemurdock1
lemurdock1

I remember Judge Kristin Booth Glen well from my time as a practicing attorney.  Very smart, very fair, very nice.  Now that I am the mother of two disabled boys and Exec Dir of a school for children with autism, I appreciate her even more -- she is obviously caring and sensitive.  I am so happy that she took on the lawyers and banks to ensure that they do right by people who are so severely disabled they cannot fend for themselves.  What a great outcome -- I hope other judges will pick up where Judge Glen left off and hold these officials accountable.


AerOHead
AerOHead

What I hadn't yet learned when I posted that is that Harvey Platt also makes a fair share of money with his books (search for his name on Amazon) and also on the lecture circuit. His family health problems somehow didn't keep him from updating his books every year!

I haven't yet had a chance to read Judge Glen's entire opinion on this case, but I've put it on my Kindle for reading later. It's a bit hard to find, so here's a link for anyone who is interested: http://law.justia.com/cases/new-york/other-courts/2012/2012-ny-slip-op-22387.html

 
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