Legal industry silent on Astor estate attorney culpability

The Sound of (Legal) Silence
Lou Ann Anderson
June 14, 2009
Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) actions in which probate venues and/or probate instruments (wills, trusts, guardianships or powers of attorneys) are used to loot assets of the dead, disabled or incapacitated are becoming increasingly common.  A Manhattan trial is underway in which Anthony Marshall, son of New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, and estate planning attorney Francis Morrissey, Jr., face charges of using undue influence and other fraudulent activities to divert more than $100 million of Astor’s estate to Marshall and away from long-standing charitable beneficiaries.  Astor was 105 when she died and is alleged to have signed codicils within her last years contradicting prior well-known distribution intentions.  The trial will soon likely shift to Morrissey’s role in generating and executing these documents as well as his questionable estate administration history.

Criminal prosecutions of estate theft are rare.  This trial is additionally noteworthy as Americans at all economic levels are being similarly targeted.  An estate of $500,000 to $1 million can be especially appealing.  Traditional retirement havens like Florida, California and Arizona are magnets for perpetrators seeking markets rich in potential IRA targets.  Texas, now the nation’s #2 retirement destination, provides new opportunity – for retirees and legal predators.

The legal industry routinely acts as if IRA efforts don’t exist or that incidence rates are exaggerated.  Tracking these cases is difficult as they often quietly happen in courtrooms or law offices plus take on various forms from outright looting to creating contrived disputes so billable hours can be charged against an estate.  Documented and anecdotal accounts give reason to believe that for every case reported, many more are silently occurring.  While the legal industry outwardly downplays IRA actions, a review of Continuing Legal Education topics indicates significant internal offerings on attorney protection and estates.

In September 2008, Terry Stork, a disbarred Texas attorney, was sentenced to 15 years in jail after pleading guilty to three counts of estate theft.   Travis County ADA Patty Robertson made a compelling presentation on Stork’s 25+ years of criminal activities and professional misconduct.  The judge and defense attorney openly lamented the need for the sentencing yet, as the legal industry dislikes exposure of its shortcomings, no compassion was directed toward Stork’s betrayed clients or to their heirs – some of whom spent vast amounts of time and money seeking justice and whose work undoing the harm continues on.

“Proper estate planning” is touted as a protective measure, but in today’s legal climate, the security advertised is overrated.  One doesn’t need Brooke Astor wealth to become a target.  Caution is advised when relocating to a retirement community as such locales can be attractive to more than seniors.  Upon becoming an IRA victim, competent, honest legal representation can be difficult to attain as all attorneys are not corrupt, but too few will aggressively stand up against the predators in their industry (or your community).  Asset theft via the probate system is a reality and an issue about which the silence must be broken.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at and a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas.  Lou Ann may be contacted at

  • Latifa Ring

    Of course the legal industry is silent on this because they are the ones robbing the estates. C’mon since when does it take 25 lawyers and many years to figure out if a daughter should be allowed to care for her mother. Nonsensical motions and filings and letters and memos and conferences just to make a killing of the wards estate should be a crime. You know if I charged my mother $250 to talk to an attorney as her guardian I would be accused of fraud but my attorney can talk to another attorney or to me and charge my ward $350 to $500 and it is legal and I’m the one caring for her. So financial exploitation is only a crime if a private citizen does it. time for America to wake up to this terrible CRIME in America.

  • Susan Crocker

    My son and I were forced into bad “trusts” we didn’t want by my former lawyer, as part of a “settlement” with greedy “manager” of my deceased husband’s property. I revoked my signature but lawyers filed them in court anyway. The lawyer who drafted them named herself “trustee”. The “trusts” are a LIABILITY.

  • J. Carerra

    Many exploited guardianship victims are often mostly normal, everyday senior citizens who unknowingly are identified as targets by the various trades within the guardianship industry; nursing home administrators, financial advisors and attorneys. Once targeted, the wheels of our adversarial system of justice begin to roll. A push for federal legislation to mandate jury trials in all states for all professional guardianship appointments (a determination of facts by one’s peers) whether contested or not, is expected later this summer.

    A newly discovered legal tactic and benefit being enjoyed by the guardianship industry in Florida is to gain an Order of “absolution” by the court for all criminal conduct. This activity and the challenges to it are outlined at .

    Efforts must be undertaken with a broad brush to control this industry. Successfully attacking it one perpetrator at a time is helpful, but the roots of the problem continue to spread unseen.

  • admin

    Considering the legal industry’s power, we believe that public outrage and action on numerous ideological, policy and governmental entity/jurisdictional fronts will be required for discernable reform to occur. The passage of laws is important, but enforcement will be required and sadly, that can be where the trick lies.

    Thank you for calling attention to this use of “absolution” orders. It is a development of which people need to be aware.

  • admin

    Thank you for the column. I find it very frustrating to deal with lawyers, knowing clients suffer consequences from bad documents, but not lawyers who drafted them.


  • Sharon Denney

    We need to stop sugarcoating the truth. An element of our justice system (that system paid for by our taxes and by the blood or our soldiers) has been criminalized by the lowest members of the legal industry. These maggots operate in the basement darkness of our probate courts and ex parte departments. Predatory attorneys steal in the most egregious manner from those too weakened to prevent the assaults. The attorneys’ thefts are fully supported, if not encouraged, by the lower level, lower functioning judges and commissioners who work in the basement of the judicial system. An administrative staff eases the way for their crimes by maintaining efficiency as well as an inexplicable silence. The presiding judge and the other justices come to work with their rose colored glasses – determined not to note the criminal enterprise occurring in their workplace. If they were brave enough to note it – they would have to be responsible to it and that’s a BIG undertaking. You need courage and standards to be responsible to what you know.

    Those not working within the marbled halls – the CJC, the Bar, the Attn Gen’s Office – have all well practiced, cowardly excuses for how the problem just isn’t theirs. The key is to get it out of the court and into the hands of citizen panels where the thought of a trust attn for an injured child, fighting every suggestion the child’s mother makes because that it the only way he or she can pare away 1/3 of the income that child needs for life. That thought, that practice for a panel of citizens is cause for outrage – for the attorneys, it’s just a steady stream of income.
    These moral flatliners are sucking the guality of life out of the days, months, years left to our elderly and our dying. In doing so they are turning upside down the very American expectation that what I have earned is mine – and will be used to maintain my end of life independence or, barring that will be part of the legacy I leave to my children and/or grandchilden. Nobody would want what they sweated for, worked for, sacrificed for – for 60 to 70 years to go to some sleazy attn who is willing to do nothing that enhances life – but is instead by pretending to confer, to meet, to analyze, to consider ,to discuss etc with everyone under the sun – able to get thousands even hundreds of thousand of dollars into their own pockes – with out giving a thing back to the client.

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