A bitter chapter in the litigation swirling around Brooke Astor and her estate – worth more than $180 million when she died two years ago – came to a close this week when Anthony Marshall was found guilty on criminal charges that he defrauded his mother and stole tens of millions of dollars from her as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the twilight of her life.

As reported by the NY Times in Brooke Astor’s Son Guilty in Scheme to Defraud Her:

The jury’s verdict means that Mrs. Astor’s son, Anthony D. Marshall, 85, faces a sentence of at least a year and as many as 25 years. A co-defendant, Francis X. Morrissey Jr., a lawyer who did estate planning for Mrs. Astor, was also convicted of a series of fraud and conspiracy charges, as well as one count of forging Mrs. Astor’s signature on an amendment to her will.

And it won’t be long now before round two of this litigation heats up: a direct challenge to Brooke Astor’s last will, again as reported by the NY Times:

Because many of the convictions were related to changes to Mrs. Astor’s will that prosecutors said the defendants procured through fraud, Mr. Marshall would seem to be compromised when the battle over Mrs. Astor’s estate — worth more than $180 million when she died two years ago — shifts to Surrogate’s Court in Westchester County.

Of the changes to the will, prosecutors vigorously objected to one executed in January 2004 that gave Mr. Marshall outright control of $60 million of his mother’s estate upon her death.

Paul Saunders, a lawyer for Mrs. de la Renta, said the main defense argument — that Mrs. Astor understood and consented to what her son was doing — had been undermined by the criminal verdict. “The jury clearly found that she did not,” he said. “That’s important because her mental capacity is the central issue in the will contest.”

Lesson learned?

This is only the latest development in a case that’s been grabbing headlines for years [click here, here, here, here]. Will contests rarely have lasting significance beyond the families directly caught up in them, and this case is no exception. But I think those of us who make our living in the trusts and estates world may come to remember the Astor case as a very high profile example of a trend I predict we’ll see more of in years to come: inheritance disputes morphing into criminal prosecutions.

Whether trusts and estates lawyers think this is good or bad public policy is almost beside the point; it’s a fact of life we’ll have to deal with. Which means probate litigators will need to start teaming up with criminal defense attorneys much more frequently, advise their clients to “plead the 5th” at the first hint of trouble [click here], and consider what steps they as lawyers need to take to avoid becoming prosecution targets themselves [click here].