Estate looting, probate abuse “stimulus” (part 2)

Is Texas’ population growth a “stimulus” for estate looting, probate abuse? (Part 2)
Lou Ann Anderson
July 13, 2009
www.EstateofDenial.com
As Texas is home to four of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing cities, a larger population will provide opportunity for increased instances of estate and other probate abuses currently threatening the personal and property rights of Texans and their heirs.  If someone robs a bank, that’s front-page news.  Steal from an estate, few people will know, and sadly, even less will care.

Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) perpetrators use probate venues and/or legal instruments like wills, trusts, guardianships or powers of attorney to “divert” assets in a manner contrary to the asset owner’s intentions.  That such acts can happen with little or no attention adds to their appeal.  Residents of a thriving state – especially one with a large retiree population – need to understand the growing threat to their property rights and, in the case of guardianships, their personal liberty as well.

On occasion an estate abuse case will surface and receive media attention.  From 2006 to 2008, The Austin American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski reported on the investigation and subsequent prosecution of former Austin attorney Terry Stork.

In a 2006 article entitled Fighting the touchy battle of estate theft, Plohetski writes:

Texas law calls stealing from a dead person’s estate “misapplication of fiduciary property.” Bexar County Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff calls it plain old theft.

Rickhoff, a former federal prosecutor who took office in 2001, has been one of the state’s most aggressive probate judges when he suspects estate theft. He says he has referred dozens of potential cases to prosecutors.

“The culture here was that all the civil lawyers thought every dispute about where money went is a civil matter that should be resolved in a lawsuit,” Rickhoff said. “It was clear to me that if you take a diamond ring and give it to someone (else), you stole the diamond ring.

“It is without authority,” he said. “You just stole someone else’s property.”

But Rickhoff appears to be one of the few people in the probate system willing to speak up when he suspects estate theft.

People accused of the crime are seldom investigated by law enforcement, an Austin American-Statesman review of Texas probate system has found. Indictments and arrests are rarer still, according to probate lawyers, judges and prosecutors from across Texas.

And it was Rickhoff who alerted Travis County officials as to Stork’s questionable activities involving a Bexar County estate that ultimately was tied in with two estates in Travis County’s jurisdiction.  All three estates belonged to elderly women who had entrusted Stork to manage/distribute their assets upon their respective deaths.

In 2008, Stork was charged and plead guilty to three counts of felony theft.  Life in prison was possible on two of the charges and a jail term of up to 20 years on the third.  In addition to co-mingling funds from the three estates, Stork diverted cash assets to his personal accounts and used real and personal property from the estates for the benefit of himself and other family members.

A September 2008 sentencing hearing involved 14 witnesses who testified to decades of unethical behavior by Stork.  From a history of legal disciplinary actions to physical altercations with school crossing guards and city of Austin courthouse security personnel, Stork was known as combative and an individual who routinely operated outside social and professional norms.  Despite having lost his law license, Stork was even continuing to practice law in the weeks prior to his sentencing as per testimony from Stork’s own brother, Michael.

On September 22, 2008, Stork was sentenced to 15 years in prisonEstateofDenial.com was in attendance and provided a detailed description of the proceeding.  Deference toward the demise of Terry Stork produced surreal moments when Judge Bob Perkins and other attorneys in attendance shared apparent distress at having to take substantive action against one of their own.

The only positive note of this case is that in response to the media attention, the 2007 Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring executors to send written notice to heirs of estates.  In a more honest time, this likely was considered an automatic step.  Sadly, today that’s not the case.

Here is what all Texans should understand about the looming threat of probate or estate abuse:  Terry Stork betrayed the three women who entrusted him to properly distribute their lifelong accumulation of assets.  These women were responsible and engaged in “proper estate planning” with, they thought, a “qualified professional.”  All indications are that Stork had a long history of questionable ethics and conduct yet the self-regulating legal industry had no problem allowing his activities to continue for decades – and on that September afternoon when faced with having to assess real consequences for bad behavior, the atmosphere was apologetic.  How does this bode well for other hard-working Texans?

Terry Stork stole far more than money.  With a belief in taxpayer protections and property rights, here’s perspective that could have been delivered:

Laura Ellis, Allene Naumann, Clara Petri.  These are the names that we want to not be forgotten.  Some heirs connected to these ladies have been through a legal hell which should never have occurred.  They have lost time in their lives and financial resources which will never be recovered. Their families have been negatively  affected by this — all due to the dishonesty of one man.

Mrs. Ellis, Mrs. Naumann, Mrs. Petri counted on Terry Stork to honor their final wishes.  This man betrayed them and his impact will be felt for generations as Terry Stork stole much more than money.  Rights of inheritance – an American tradition, an American right – provide future opportunity.  To steal this from another person and their heirs is a theft of future individual productivity and societal prosperity.  The assets squandered by Terry Stork could have provided an enhanced education, seed money for a new business, capital toward a home – all things that feed our economy promoting capitalistic productivity and/or financial independence.

When people have the capacity for a lifelong accumulation of assets, what a heinous, evil crime for someone to steal and squander financial resources while simultaneously denying said assets to rightful heirs who hopefully would continue the legacy of fiduciary responsibility, fiscal appreciation and asset maximization — all attributes absolutely in absentia with regard to Terry Erwin Stork!

These type activities routinely occur.  The next installment of this series will shift to the southern part of our state.

Meanwhile, Texans beware.

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 www.EstateofDenial.com and a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas.  Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

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