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.

Mark Holman, millionaire orphan
Courtesy Sharon Awad
Mark Holman, millionaire orphan
Judge Kristen Booth Glen picked a fight with the banks.
plsny.org
Judge Kristen Booth Glen picked a fight with the banks.

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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