High Profile Legal Battle Reveals Growing Crisis in Estate Planning
Here’s an update on a story we brought you just one year ago. It’s another sad example of how even those with vast personal wealth sometimes fail to plan carefully for their declining years. No matter how rich and powerful they are, the result of this planning failure is often a disaster, with vicious courtroom battles, accusations of manipulation, and an endless supply of headlines for the news websites and tabloids. But don’t miss the important lesson for us all: if we don’t plan properly today – and if we don’t make certain those who are looking after us in our declining years thoroughly understand and support our wishes – we could be setting our own families up for a similar fate a decade or two from now. Even fights over modest-sized estates can quickly become bitter, stretching family bonds past the breaking point. Is that how you want to be remembered?
In 2014 the news was filled with stories of the decline and eventual death of music legend Casey Kasem. Sadly, what really attracted the attention of most of us wasn’t the account of Kasem’s influential career in pop music, but the ugly fight over his care and his estate as the former radio star suffered from deteriorating mental and physical capacity. The battle over Kasem’s custody, and his money, made for a real-life tabloid soap opera.
Now, as we first wrote in 2016, it’s happening again – only this time the stakes are even higher. The key player in this most recent headline-grabbing drama is Sumner Redstone, the billionaire media mogul whose company controls both CBS and Viacom. Redstone has a personal fortune estimated at $5 billion, and his media empire is worth eight times that much. However, the 93-year-old Redstone also suffers from what some claim is advanced dementia, and his diminished capacity has triggered a battle royal between children, grandchildren, business partners, former mistresses – and, of course, armies of attorneys.
There has been a barrage of media coverage of the Redstone Affair. Click here for an excellent analysis we read last year about this sad saga in the New York Times. Lest you think this battle over money has been settled, think again: just a few days ago another lawsuit was filed by a former companion of Sumner Redstone, which you can read about by clicking here.
The details of the war over CBS, Viacom and Redstone’s personal fortune would fill several pages, and we won’t attempt to review them here. But what really caught our attention was this statement at the start of the New York Times article: “With a fortune estimated at over $5 billion, Sumner M. Redstone could afford the best estate planning that money could buy,” said the Times. “What he ended up with is a mess.”
The whole saga of the death of the rich and famous can be sad, even pathetic. Pop star Prince died without a will. Casey Kasem died in a reduced mental state with those supposedly closest to him fighting it out in court and in the media. Now Sumner Redstone, a wealthy and influential tycoon just a few years ago, has become a humiliated figure while an unseemly war rages around him. Here at Aging Options, we pass these stories along to you, not out of a voyeuristic desire to gloat over the misfortunes of the powerful, but as a warning: you don’t have to be rich and famous to need a carefully designed estate plan.
As people age, many will begin to lose the capacity to make sound decisions about their affairs, leaving them open to undue influence by caregivers and others. The New York Times quotes Chicago estate planning specialist Kerry Peck who says that “the Redstone pattern is happening in epidemic proportions.” He adds that sometimes older men are influenced by younger women who meet them in “places you’d consider safe, like senior centers, churches and synagogues. They start as caregivers and then become romantic suitors. We’re seeing these scenarios with stunning frequency.” When this happens, the wishes of children, grandchildren, and other loved ones can literally be tossed out the window. The Times calls this “a huge issue nationally,” even for people of modest wealth.
There is a long section in the New York Times article detailing possible solutions to this problem including the creation of a trust that determines who can make decisions for you in the event of incapacity. (Ironically Sumner Redstone has such a trust in place, but because it does not adequately define the term “incapacity,” no one can agree if he is of sound mind or not, and the courts are trying to step in to untangle the resulting legal mess.) Another expert quoted in the Times piece said, “In drafting a trust like this, you need very clear standards and protocols for determining [mental] capacity.” Sadly, the Times concludes in considering Redstone’s short-sightedness, “no amount of legal advice can save people from an unwillingness to face their own mortality and cede control while still in full control of [their] faculties.”
As Rajiv Nagaich also emphasizes, lack of planning alone is seldom the entire problem. Too often our fiduciaries – those we select to manage our affairs – either fail to understand their duties or are unwilling to carry them out, either through ignorance or self-interest. “Death and disability create a highly emotional environment,” says Rajiv, “even for estates that do not have significant value. The more resources you add, the more you magnify the problem.” The missing piece, says Rajiv, is “having a well-managed family meeting conducted by a someone really skillful who is not part of the immediate family.” The professionals at AgingOptions can assist you with this critical planning tool if you’ll contact our office.
Few of us will ever have the resources of a Casey Kasem or Sumner Redstone. But all of us want to protect our assets as we age, avoid becoming a burden to our loved ones, and escape the trap of unplanned institutional care. “Without a good, thorough family meeting,” Rajiv emphasizes, “it is highly unlikely that these goals will come true – no matter how well your legal documents are written and how much money you have in the bank.”
Yes, these are touchy issues. But here at Aging Options we want to offer our services as your guide through the maze of retirement and estate planning. It doesn’t have to be overly complex! When it comes to retirement, our comprehensive approach takes all aspects of your retirement plan, or LifePlan, into account: legal affairs, financial plans, health care requirements, housing choices and family ties. With a LifePlan in place, you can face the future with confidence and peace of mind. To get started, why not join us for a free LifePlanning Seminar? You’ll find all the information including online registration by clicking this link to our Upcoming Events tab. We’re confident you’ll thoroughly enjoy this information-packed session.
Remember, even the wealthy like Sumner Redstone or Casey Kasem can fail to plan adequately. With our help, that won’t happen to you! We’ll look forward to meeting you soon.
(originally reported at www.nytimes.com and www.mynewsla.com)