Law and Conversation

February 23, 2011

Passion and probate law: 3 biographies

Earlier this week I recommended Sally Bedell Smith’s “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman,” an especially good biography for those who love both probate law and good stories.

Here are three more biographies sure to fascinate probate lawyers and anyone who loves stories filled with passion and intrigue:

1) “Little Gloria…Happy At Last,” by Barbara Goldsmith.  A fine researcher and writer, Goldsmith tells the sad story of the 1934 court fight between Gloria Vanderbilt’s mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, over custody of the child Gloria and control of her inheritance. Goldsmith also wrote “Johnson v. Johnson” and has written pieces for The Daily Beast on inherited wealth.

2) “The Last of the Duchess,” by Caroline Blackwood.  Not a biography in the strict sense, Blackwood’s book is, instead, the story of how Maitre Suzanne Blum, Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor’s French lawyer, companion, and guardian in the last years of her life, thwarted Blackwood’s effort to carry out her assignment from the British Sunday Times to see the Duchess of Windsor and write an article about her. Blackwood never did get to see the duchess, who was evidently bedridden and suffering from dementia in her opulent Paris home.  Though Blum’s actions are susceptible of more than one interpretation, Blackwood leaves no doubt of her view of Blum:  “a malignant old spider” who kept the duchess “under despotic surveillance” and refused to allow not only Blackwood but even the duchess’s close friends to see her. For a comparison of two other books about the duchess, see Peter Kurth’s article here. (Blackwood herself lived quite an interesting life, as Nancy Schoenberger recounts in “Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood.” Blackwood’s youngest daughter, Ivana Lowell, also wrote about her mother in her recently published memoir, “Why Not Say What Happened?”)

3) “Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds,” by Lyndall Gordon.  Among other matters, Gordon describes how a passionate and adulterous affair between the poet’s brother, Austin Dickinson, a solid Amherst lawyer, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who ended up editing Emily’s works after her death, split the Dickinson family, reverberated in the courts decades after Emily’s death, and still influences Dickinson scholarship.  You can listen to a great interview Ramona Koval did with Gordon on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Book Show” here.

Professor Gerry W. Beyer of Texas Tech University School of Law blogs about probate law in the popular and academic press at the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog.  As I’ve previously noted, he’s also been kind enough to provide me with great commentary for a number of articles for the Illinois Bar Journal.  If you practice or have any interest in probate law, check out his blog, which received a well-deserved spot on the ABA Journal Blawg 100 for 2010, and follow him on Twitter for timely updates.

What biographies do you recommend?

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February 21, 2011

Read This: biography, probate law, & scandal – Pamela Churchill Harriman

One of the greatest reading pleasures is a nice, meaty biography.  If some of the material’s scandalous, so much the better, as long as it’s clearly and thoroughly documented.

Far from being dusty and dull, probate matters may arise from every bit as much passion and scandal as divorces.  So a well-researched biography of a subject with both probate and divorce matters in her life is practically guaranteed to be a fascinating story.

The obituary of Kathleen Harriman Mortimer the other day in the New York Times reminded me that her stepmother’s life included multiple divorces and probate issues, all of which are documented and explained in Sally Bedell Smith‘s impeccably researched biography, “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman.”

More thoroughly, that would be Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman.  (To be fair to Bedell Smith and her publisher, there was only so much space on the book’s dust jacket for its subject’s name along with her charming photo.)

Check this book out if you have any interest in 20th century history and government, or Winston Churchill, or social climbers and high society, or scandal, or probate law. Bedell Smith’s subject, who was Churchill’s daughter-in-law throughout World War II and U.S. ambassador to France in he 1990s, at the end of her life, was on intimate terms with many prominent and wealthy movers and shakers in business and politics, as Bedell Smith describes and documents.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer became chums with Pamela Churchill in London during the war.  As Smith recounts, Pamela, who was around the same age as Kathleen, embarked on an affair with Kathleen’s father, Averell Harriman, a few months after her husband, Randolph Churchill, went off to war and a few more months after giving birth to their son, named Winston in honor of Pamela’s father-in-law.

After a divorce from Randolph, many more affairs, another marriage, and thirty more years, Pamela and Averell reunited, rekindled their affair, and finally married.  His death in 1985 made her fabulously rich.  In 1994, Kathleen and other Harriman heirs sued Pamela for mismanaging their inheritance.  Bedell Smith meticulously describes the fascinating personal and legal background for that suit.

Mortimer herself married into another well-connected family.  An article on the Mortimer family from the New York Observer reminded me of the ancient and intricate web of alliances among Europe’s royal families and of the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Do stop by again on Wednesday, when I’ll have three recommendations for other biographies touching on or suggesting probate law issues.  In the meantime, I’d love to see comments on biographies that you’ve enjoyed.

August 18, 2010

Last will and testament as literature

Filed under: Books and writing,Law,Victorian literature — Helen Gunnarsson @ 7:41 am
Tags: , ,

Oh, this is exciting to those of us who love both the law and Victorian literature:  Cathrine Frank, assistant professor of English at the University of New England, has published “Law, Literature, and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925.”  From her university’s and the publisher’s websites:

Focusing on the last will and testament as a legal, literary, and cultural document, Cathrine O. Frank examines fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian eras alongside actual wills, legal manuals relating to their creation, case law regarding their administration, and contemporary accounts of “curious wills” in periodicals.

The press release from the University of New England quotes the author:  “It’s easy to play ‘spot the will’ in novels,” Frank said, “but one of the most fascinating things I found in my reading, from judges’ opinions to magazine articles, was how widespread the interest in wills was. Everyday people, not just the wealthy and their lawyers, were deeply interested in the idea of the will.”

I wrote earlier about probate law and literature here.

Hat tip:  The BronteBlog.

July 30, 2010

Why you need to know what a power of attorney is

The Illinois Power of Attorney statute has been amended to provide greater protections to principals.  The new law is P.A. 96-1195, effective July 1, 2011.  You can read it on the Illinois General Assembly’s website.

As I wrote in the May 2010 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal, the new law provides notice to those assuming the agent role of their duties and responsibilities and adds the duties of good faith, competence, and diligence to agents’ duty of due care.  Among many other things, it also expands the categories of people who would be entitled to ask for accountings from agents and provides for awards of attorney’s fees against agents in the event they violate the statute.

 Whether you’re a lawyer or not, you need to know what a power of attorney is.  The odds are, in this time of longer lives and Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, that either you’ll be called to sign one as part of your estate plan or to act under one as an agent, or one of your family members will be in that situation.

When you sign a power of attorney, you’re authorizing another person to act in your place and on your behalf.  That person is the agent under the power of attorney, sometimes also called your “attorney-in-fact.” 

Historically, powers of attorney became invalid after the principal, that is, the person signing the power of attorney, became incapacitated.  So someone who had signed a power of attorney enabling, say, an adult child to handle his financial affairs and then became unable to do so because of dementia (for example) would then have to become the subject of a court proceeding so that a guardian could be appointed to handle his affairs. 

Court proceedings cost money and are not generally pleasant, including for someone who’s no longer capable of handling his own business but is still quite capable of understanding that other people are taking him to court to have him declared incompetent.  Durable powers of attorney solve this problem by remaining valid after the principal’s disability, so no court proceeding is required.  They aren’t a panacea, though.  With no supervision by a court or anyone else, they’re subject to abuse by those acting under them.  So choose your agent wisely, and have a full and frank discussion with that person about what you want and expect from him or her before you make your arrangements.  Think about talking to other family members, too, who may get their noses out of joint if and when they learn of your choice.

If you’re asked to act under a power of attorney, know that it’s a huge responsibility and a lot of work.  Even if you’re totally honest, expect that you’ll be subject to suspicion by relatives, family friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and service providers.  You can mitigate this to some extent by being transparent, at least with family members.  Sure, the law may not require you to open your relative’s books to the rest of the family.  Just because something’s not required, though, doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.  Sunshine really is the best disinfectant.

I’ve written a number of articles on powers of attorney and on how lawyers can represent impaired clients and their agents under powers of attorney.

“The Perilous World of POA Agents,” 96 Ill Bar J 398 (August 2008)

“Stepping up the fight against elder abuse,” 96 Ill Bar J 339 (July 2008)

“Cashing in on home sweet home,” 96 Ill Bar J 179 (April 2008)

“Of Principals and POAs:  Protecting the Elderly from Themselves,” 95 Ill Bar J 580 (November 2007)

“Help Your Client Choose the Right Advance Directive,” 93 Ill Bar J 284 (June 2005)

“The Challenge of Representing Mentally Impaired Clients,” 92 Ill Bar J 518 (October 2004)

Several contemporary writers have dealt with dementia and its effects on the victim and family members by combining sensitivity with humor:

Jonathan Franzen, “The Corrections.”

Marina Lewycka, “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.”

Mark Haddon, “A Spot of Bother.”

Professor Gerry W. Beyer of the Texas Tech University School of Law blogs about powers of attorney and other probate law issues at the Wills, Trusts, and Estates Prof Blog.  I’ve interviewed Professor Beyer and quoted him a number of times in my articles.  His blog provides information, insight and ideas about all kinds of different probate angles.  Do check it out!

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