Flashback perspective on Bexar County Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff

As Bexar County Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff has been a major player in the Benson estate battle, this 2009 “profile in probate law”  offers some interesting insight.

From San Antonio Business Journal:

Over Tom Rickhoff’s career, he fought in the battlefields of Vietnam, spent several years prosecuting the Mafia in New Orleans, and sat on the bench of the 4th Court of Appeals. Today, one might think the business of probating wills and determining guardianship cases would be comparatively dull. But not from Rickhoff’s perspective. What makes his job interesting?

“An endlessly fascinating study of human motivation,” he says.

His duties include determining whether someone is competent to handle their financial affairs to settling inheritance issues with squabbling siblings. In the end, it still involves the study of behavior and intentions.

“The Mafia differed in that they were far more charming (e.g. when your wife gave birth, they sent flowers to the hospital),” Rickhoff recalls. “They were also more prepared and accepting when they received the consequences of their bad behavior.”

When people don’t leave well-prepared and documented wills, it is Rickhoff’s job to figure out what they meant to do with their assets. Take, for example, a former Miss Alabama who died in her area home more than a year ago, leaving numerous cats and a partner. Her handwritten will, witnessed by a motel clerk, left all her assets to her cats first, then her partner. But before the will was found, all but one of the cats, ironically named Lucky, were euthanized as government officials sought to deal with the health hazard left in her home, Rickhoff recalls. “Lucky escaped into homelessness, and unbeknownst to her, lost a fortune,” Rickhoff explains.

Rickhoff committed the partner to a state facility. Attempting to ascertain the late woman’s intentions, he awarded the remainder of the estate to the Alabama Defense League.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t have any children to look after them and they do bizarre things,” he says. With his job, there is enormous responsibility and power. He takes this responsibility seriously.

“The trouble with this work is you have so little supervision so you have to worry about staying humble,” he says.

In probate and guardianship cases, he sees all too many incidents of caregivers, children and others trying to take advantage of elderly people. And yet, he’s seen cases where the elderly person has intentionally left assets to their caregivers while in other cases his court has determined that the subject was duped.

“It happens both ways,” he says. “We’ve had the caregiver get a $1 million and there’s other times where we send them to the D.A.’s office …,” he says.

Rickhoff recently talked to the Business Journal about his life and offered some advice to parents and children in the area of estate planning.

Employer: Bexar County

Position: Judge, Probate Court 2

Age: 65

Education: B.A. in English history, St Mary’s University, 1966; St. Mary’s University School of Law, 1969

Family: Married to Carol (Mumford) Rickhoff for 39 years. Carol has a B.A. from Incarnate Word and a masters’ degree in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University; three sons; two daughters

On growing up: (Born in Idaho while my father was serving the U.S. Navy in the Philippines. My father, John, was a trial lawyer and state district judge, who had seven children. I grew up in St. Louis.)

On your dad: His manipulation was subtle, and only by example. Once, while I was visiting (his office), he called a teenager into his room with the consent of the divorcing parents. The conversation he had with the teenage kid was critically determinative. He was deciding child custody and he and (the youth) had this deep discussion about what the youth planned for the rest of his life and which parent was going to be better to live with in order to reach those goals. I remember it being highly significant — let’s talk about the rest of your life. It was this wonderfully warm (conversation).

Defining moment when you knew what your wanted to do: When in Vietnam as a JAG captain in a combat brigade, I was ordered to follow a policy that was dangerous to our soldiers. When I could not convince the colonel to change it, I decided I wanted to be the one to make policy. So, I ran for the legislature from Vietnam.

On your career: While raising my children I had my court designation changed to work with abused and delinquent children; then, as my parents aged and my children grew up and left the house, my interest advanced to the aged. After serving on the District and Appellate Courts, I requested that the four Democrats and one Republican choose me (for the Probate Court), and they did. I was subsequently elected twice in contested elections.

On how your career path followed your father’s: When I was 55, I realized, Oh my God, I did everything my dad did. (My career) precisely followed his education, military service, and judicial career. The only difference is our family size — I only had five children and my father had seven. He probably manipulated us. He sent us to private schools, but I think I needed the shelter of a private school …. I solicited his advice until he was 92.

How did you get to San Antonio: I had to get away from home because I had such an oppressively large family. In St. Louis, I was John’s son; when he came here (later in his life), he was Tom’s dad.

On the Probate Court: The court is created to hear all (and only) those cases involving wills, guardianships, and (oddly) eminent domain cases. Only counties with large populations have specialized courts like this. In counties with smaller populations, the District Court hears these matters. In Bexar County there are two Probate Courts. (Probate Court 1 is run by Judge Polly Jackson Spencer.) The decision to create two of them is based on our population size. Harris County, which is where Houston is, has four Probate Courts.

On your job: In my job, I hear cases where someone has died with a will and they need their estate settled, cases where someone has died without a will and they need their estate settled, guardianship cases, and eminent domain cases. A case is “opened” when the appropriate paperwork is filed with the Probate Office of the Bexar County District Clerk. When filed, the case is assigned a unique case number — and numbers that end in an even number end up in my court, and cases that are assigned an odd number go to the other Probate Court. Officially, I handle all cases in my court. I have two licensed attorneys on my staff who know estate and probate law inside and out, and they thoroughly review everything that lawyers submit to my court. However, nothing is final without my signature. My rule is to sign every document that is ready to be signed before I leave each day. I am very committed to not wasting estate funds.

No. of cases that go through your court a year: Approximately 4,100

Advice for writing a will: First, DO IT! There’s an old saying– “Lawyers don’t make money from the people who come in, they make money from people that DON’T.” Dying without a will creates an opportunity for an unhappy in-law or a needy sibling in the family to sue. If you die without a will, family friends must, in court, identify your heirs and more lawyers are needed. The cost of hiring a lawyer to draft a will is less. You can also write your own will, but it must be entirely in your handwriting, signed by you, dated by you, and indicate that you want it to be your will. Consider consulting a specialist. As another saying goes, “a jack of all trades is a master of none.” One tiny mistake can cause a disaster.

Biggest problems in probating wills: Only family relations, such as a marriage with children followed by another marriage with children where the high earner then passes away. Or, trials are generated where a greedy child gets close to a parent who begins to suffer from dementia.

Advice for those inheriting on avoiding these issues: Visit your elderly parents, and don’t let the dysfunctional child move in and isolate. Learn the badges of elder abuse so you can prevent them.

How do you address these issues when they come to your court: With patience. The cases depend on whether or not the (decedent) died with or without a will. If they died with a will, I consider the testator’s desires sacred until the twin contentions of undue influence and testamentary capacity are presented. Then, we try the case by jury or by judge alone. Only about once per year do the parties request a jury, typically the parties to a will contest allow me to decide.

Pet peeve: People who prey on the elderly.

An example: In one of my guardianship cases, this lady had just paid $2 million for diamonds. She went up to Dallas all by herself to get them. She was bragging about them, and was wearing them when she came into court. I ordered her to take them off. I sent them to be appraised (and ordered a set of imitations for her to wear. She had been scammed.) We had her phone tapped, and when they indicted the guy (who had allegedly scammed her), he tried to marry her so she couldn’t testify against him.

Your life philosophy: “When trouble comes my way, I don’t let it trouble me!” (A quote from Alfred Flores, who is my daughter-in-law’s 101-year-old grandfather).

Influential book: The Acts of the Apostles.

Influential trip: Turkey, guided by an interfaith dialogue group of the Gulen movement. The trip featured the early sites of the “People of the Book” (i.e. Christians, Jews, and Muslims).


Profiles in Probate law: Tom Rickhoff
Sandra Lowe Sanchez
November 15, 2009
San Antonio Business Journal