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

The trustees agreed to pay for some of the items Staver recommended, including a computer, headphones, clothing, and gift certificates for restaurants. They also hired Staver to assess Mark four times a year.

In June 2009, Glen was finally ready to appoint Platt as Mark's guardian, but with strings attached: He would have to report to the court every year.

New York's guardianship law for intellectually disabled people, known as Article 17-A, is one of the nation's few that doesn't require periodic judicial review. "If a guardian was appointed 15 years ago, we have no idea whether the kid's dead, alive, tied to a mattress in their own crap," Glen says.

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

Mark, Glen wrote in her opinion, could have remained completely isolated in an institution without his resources being spent to help him reach his potential. From now on, she decreed, all guardians appointed in Manhattan would have to report annually.

Glen didn't stop there. She wondered how many Marks were out there, and how many trustees were getting away with not spending money on them.

By chance, another special-needs case had come across her docket that year. A severely disabled woman had a large fund managed by a corporate trustee. It seemed no one had evaluated her for years, so Glen sent a guardian ad litem to visit her. She lived very comfortably, with a full-time caretaker and chauffeur. But Glen found out that the woman never went outside because she couldn't hold her head up. The trustee never visited her and had no idea she needed a wheelchair that could support her head, or that such a wheelchair existed.

"They were spending a lot of money, but they weren't spending money in a smart way," Glen says.

That same year, Glen ordered Mark's trustees to open their books.

In 2010, Mark moved into his own room at the Anderson Center. During the day, he exercised and worked on communication and vocational skills, like sorting and packaging. He didn't do well with change, and at first he hit staff and himself.

But soon, Staver noticed improvements. Mark had made "significant progress" using pictures to convey words, sentences, and questions. For the first time, he could dress himself, eat with regular utensils, and drink from a cup. He was still aggressive, but he was also playing outside with a ball, watching videos, and eating at restaurants accompanied by caregivers.

"He smiles and will reciprocate gestures such as high fives or handshakes," Staver wrote. (She declined comment on this story due to a confidentiality agreement.)

A year later, Mark no longer needed a safety harness to restrain him during van rides. He could now brush his teeth without help, take laundry in and out of the washing machine, put his plate in the dishwasher, and review his daily schedule. He was using a trampoline, reclining bike, and Nintendo Wii the trustees had bought him, and his Xbox helped him interact with others. He left the facility to eat in restaurants, go bowling, get haircuts, and shop. Staff began planning a vacation to Disney World or the Autism on the Seas cruise.

By 2012, Mark was showering independently. He liked dressing up before eating out and buying a drink for himself after walking a trail. Using new communication devices, he chose the foods he wanted for dinner. For the first time, he could use sign language to say "apple" and "cracker."

One day, as Staver left Mark's classroom, she waved and said, "Bye!" Mark had never spoken in his life, so she expected no reply.

But this time she didn't hear gurgles or inscrutable sounds. Instead, she heard him utter his first word: "Buh!"

In late 2012, as Glen neared mandatory retirement at age 70, she decided to follow up on Mark's case. She discovered that it had been two years since the trustees filed documents showing how they'd managed Mark's trust.

The trust was now worth $3.6 million. In the five years after Marie's death, Platt earned more than $26,000 in commissions, and JP Morgan received more than $52,000. But through March 2010, they had only spent $3,525 on Mark after Glen intervened.

In December, on her last day as a judge, Glen wrote her final chapter in Mark's case, which had implications that would reach far beyond him. She ruled for the first time that banks and other trustees have to figure out what disabled people need and spend money to improve their lives.

Like many of her opinions, this one was unusually detailed, reading more like a novella than a court record.

"The history reveals a severely disabled, vulnerable, institutionalized young man, wholly dependent on Medicaid, unvisited and virtually abandoned, despite a multi-million dollar trust left for his care by his deceased mother," she began.

According to Glen, in the four years since trustees hired Staver and attended to Mark's needs, the intervention "has dramatically improved the beneficiary's quality of life and his functional capacity to enjoy what is now a near 'normal' existence in the community.

"It is not sufficient for the trustees to simply safeguard the Mark Trust's assets; instead, the trustees have a duty to Mark to inquire into his condition and to apply trust income to improving it."

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