When I wrote about the brewing probate dispute involving Rosa Park’s estate, I mentioned that contested guardianship proceedings are often simply precursors to the real battle: probate litigation. An on-going guardianship dispute that is now receiving national attention, as described in this New York Times article, also highlights a second issue driving many guardianship disputes: forum shopping. In this case, the family is split over whether a court in Texas or one in New Jersey should have jurisdiction over the dispute. The following are a few excerpts from the New York Times article:
Lillian Glasser, by all accounts, never intended to spend her twilight years in Texas. Or her $25 million fortune. Beyond the personal drama, the case highlights the checkerboard practices of local probate courts, which govern the transfer of property from people who die or are declared incompetent. The courts are not federally regulated, but in response to a growing number of interstate disputes, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws is drafting nationwide probate standards similar to those in the field of child custody. “These cases are popping up all over the country,” said Terry Hammond, executive director of the National Guardianship Association, a nonprofit group of lawyers, social workers and other professionals seeking uniform standards. “The combination of the mobile character of society plus the demographics of an aging population combine to create a potentially volatile situation,” said Mr. Hammond, a lawyer in El Paso who briefly represented Mrs. Glasser’s son in the Texas dispute. To Russell Verney, an investigator with Judicial Watch, which has been studying probate courts, the issue boils down to “forum shopping.” “In my opinion,” Mr. Verney said, “this is a case about a resident of New Jersey who amassed her fortune in New Jersey and never indicated any interest in subjecting herself or her estate to the probate laws of Texas. If anyone has jurisdiction, it should be the State of New Jersey.”
Sharon B. Gardner, a Texas lawyer representing Ms. Glasser’s daughter and former guardian, Suzanne Matthews, has responded publicly to the charges being made against her client (and the jurisdiction of the Texas courts) in an e-mail message published here on the Wills, Trusts and Estates Prof Blog. As reported here, in the latest turn of events the case has wound up in Federal Court, where a judge ruled yesterday. Here are a few excerpt from the linked-to story describing the judge’s ruling:
In a sharply worded order that spanks the squabbling children of Lillian Glasser, the 85-year-old New Jersey woman mired in a nasty Texas probate struggle, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery took over a chunk of the complex case Wednesday. Calling the dispute a “legal fratricide” between sibling rivals that has consumed millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees, Biery’s order said “the end result … is the creation of a Glasser chess game in which Mrs. Glasser has become a pawn.” His ruling sends parts of the case back to Bexar County Probate Court where a trial will be held over who should become the guardian of Glasser and her $25 million estate. But because the principal parties come from three states, Biery kept control over other issues.