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Michigan Probate Litigation Cases & News
BlogsPublications | April 22, 2024
4 minute read
Michigan Probate Litigation Cases & News

Trial Win for Warner Clients in Dispute Over Decedent’s Assets

Trial attorney David Skidmore from Warner Norcross + Judd LLP’s Probate Litigation Practice Group, a subgroup of the firm’s Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice Group, recently represented clients in a trial before the Livingston County Probate Court. The dispute involved the assets of a decedent, Mark, who was single and had no children. For many years, Mark lived with James in a manufactured home owned by Mark. Mark then moved in with Chad, allowing James to still reside in the manufactured home. In his retirement years, Mark was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As his disease advanced, Mark entered a facility. Mark never signed any will or trust. Shortly after entering the facility, Mark executed a durable power of attorney, naming his brother-in-law Ray as his agent. Ray showed Mark evidence that Chad had been taking money from his accounts. Mark then directed Ray to remove Chad as beneficiary of certain assets, instead naming his estate as beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and his nephew and niece as beneficiaries of his IRA.

James sold Mark’s manufactured home and pocketed the proceeds, relying on a certificate of title allegedly signed by Mark. James frequently asked Mark to engage in financial transactions to benefit James. Facility staff noted that these requests caused Mark distress. James called Mark’s insurance company and pretended to be Mark, changing Mark’s address to James’ address, and repeatedly requesting beneficiary change forms. James had Mark sign a beneficiary change form, making James the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, which was rejected by the insurance company because the attempted signature was totally illegible. James had Mark sign both a revocation of Ray’s power of attorney, and a new power of attorney naming James as Mark’s agent. The month before Mark’s death, James submitted another beneficiary change form to the insurance company, bearing a perfect example of Mark’s signature, which the insurance company accepted. About the same time, James arranged for a marriage ceremony for him and Mark, which was later ruled invalid by the probate court.

After Mark’s death, both James and Mark’s nephew/niece claimed ownership of the insurance policy and the IRA. The life insurance company brought an interpleader action in the probate court, seeking instructions as to who the proceeds should be paid to. James and Mark’s nephew/niece litigated the identity of Mark’s intended beneficiaries. Meanwhile, Mark’s estate sued James for converting the manufactured home, claiming that the underlying certificate of title had been forged. Warner represented Mark’s estate and family members.

The probate court conducted a two-day trial. The evidence included:

  • Recordings of the phone calls between James and the life insurance company, in which James stated that he was Mark and gave Mark’s social security number and birthdate as his own.
  • Testimony by Mark’s treating nurse that he physically could not have made the perfect signature that appeared on the final beneficiary designation in favor of James.
  • Mark’s medical records showing that he was suffering from major delusions before he signed any of the documents benefiting James.

The probate court ruled for Mark’s estate and family members and against James. The court found that James had statutorily converted the manufactured home and ordered him to not only return the sale proceeds to Mark’s estate but also pay the estate’s attorney fees incurred in bringing the claim. The court found that the two beneficiary designations in favor of James on Mark’s life insurance policy were invalid, the first due to mental incapacity (given Mark’s advanced Parkinson’s disease and major hallucinations at the time), and the second due to forgery. The court ordered that decedent’s nephew and niece were the intended and proper owners of both decedent’s life insurance policy and his IRA. The court found James to lack credibility, in part based on the repeated misrepresentations that he made to Mark’s life insurance company.

Practitioners should bear in mind that financial institutions are increasingly recording phone calls related to customer accounts, and such recordings may be sought in discovery, as happened here. The court obviously found the recordings significant in evaluating James’ credibility. The other takeaway is that a handwriting expert is not the only way to prove that a signature was forged; as here, medical testimony may prove that the alleged signature-maker was medically unable to make any signature, or a high-quality signature, on the date in question.

If you have a contested probate issue, please contact David Skidmore at 616.752.2491 or or contact another member of Warner’s Probate Litigation Practice Group.