Andrew and Danielle Mayoras of West Bloomfield co-authored the book, “Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights,” which sheds a bright light on many loopholes and disputes involving wills, trusts, and estates. The married couple have a solid reputation and extensive experience in estate planning, and are sought after educators for individuals and businesses around the country. In addition to being renowned as an estate planning attorney, Danielle is a Credentialed Professional Gerontologist. Andrew is likewise renowned as an attorney and for his blog, “The Probate Lawyer Blog: Famous Fortune Fights!” that explores stories of national interest. His speciality includes contested legal issues affecting seniors, caregivers and their families including probate litigation, guardianships and conservatorships, and exploitation of the elderly. Together they co-founded The Center for Elder Law, The Center for Special Needs Planning, and The Center for Probate Litigation. They graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, and work for The Center for Elder Law, a division of the Law Firm of Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras and Mayoras, in Troy. The couple, with their three children, split their time between West Bloomfield Township and southern California.
SCN: We understand you specialize in elder law. How do you define this type of practice, and what are some of the key issues involved?
DM: Elder law is estate planning plus. Besides the basic wills and trusts and power of attorneys, we’re going to go beyond that and also look at what happens if there is a long term care issue. How does someone pay for a nursing home, home care, assisted living. It’s really as I said, estate planning-plus.
SCN: How was your book conceptualized and how did it evolve?
AM: Our book was a two-year process that we spent researching and writing. We wanted a way to help families discuss the uncomfortable topic of estate planning and planning for when they pass away, and also help families avoid the family fights that unfortunately are far too common. We compiled a great collection of celebrity stories to help teach people what not to do, because the same mistakes these celebrities are making, everyday families make as well.
SCN: Were people reluctant to speak to you?
DM: Fortunately for us, we worked with celebrities in the sense that we worked off of public documents and court records. There are some cases from our practice in Troy, Michigan, as well, in the book, but the majority are high profile celebrity cases.
SCN: Share with our readers some of the more interesting cases you uncovered during your research.
AM: There are a lot of them. One of my favorites is the Ted Williams case. Ted Williams was a famous baseball player. There was a big fight between his daughter from his first marriage, and the kids from his second marriage, over whether he should be cryogenically frozen when he passed away. He had signed a note saying that he and his two kids wanted to be frozen just in case medical science could ever bring them back together, and so the older daughter fought it because the will said he wanted to be cremated. It was a long nasty battle. In the end, the note won and he was cryogenically frozen after he passed away. It shows not all of these cases are about money. Emotion plays a very big role, especially when you have second marriage situations.
DM: As Andy said, it’s very hard to choose because there are so many different cases, but each case illustrates a different principal, so I’m going through my head trying to pick. I think I’ll go with the Sonny Bono case, which is a great case for your readers and listeners because that is someone who obviously had a lot of wealth, who was a congressman and an entertainer, who probably had a lot of sophisticated planners around him, but believe it or not, when he passed away at the young age of 62 he did not even have a simple will in place. I think this is a great case to illustrate that no one is promised tomorrow and people of all different ages need to do the planning and not procrastinate. In his case, because he didn’t have a simple will in place, his widow had to go through a lot of grief in the court system dealing with a lot of creditors coming out of the woodwork, including Cher. There was an alleged “love child” who came forward and said she was entitled to a portion of the money and if Sonny would have had this simple will in place, he could have saved his widow and his children a lot of grief, time and stress.
SCN: What can the average person glean from these celebrity estate fights?
AM: It’s interesting, because even though these same fights and same mistakes that happen in celebrity families are over a lot more money, the exact same mistakes lead to fighting in everyday families. The Sonny Bono case that Danielle talked about is a great example. Everybody needs to have a will. A lot of the other stories, in fact, all of them have lessons that everyday families can take away to learn how to do the proper estate planning and also protect their families from fighting. The celebrity angle gives families a good basis to start a dialogue because even talking about this subject with loved ones is uncomfortable and having celebrities to talk about to compare to your own situation(to) makes that conversation easier.
SCN: A lot of the scenarios you cite in the book make one wonder how these oversights occurred when the parties had the money and could afford the guidance to protect their assets. How did good estate planning go bad?
DM: I think, as Andy said, you don’t have to be rich and famous to make mistakes, and even if you have a lot of money you still make mistakes. I think the statistics show us that about two-thirds of Americans don’t even have a simple will. I find that as an estate planning attorney and an educator, one of the reasons that this happens so frequently is because everybody is busy, number one. We’re all busy with our aging parents, with our children, with our jobs–we’re all juggling a lot of different things and it’s easy to put our estate planning on the back burner. Secondly, it’s because, let’s face it, it’s not always an exciting thing to do. A lot of us don’t want to think of our own mortality. We don’t want to think about what happens when we are no longer mentally competent or what happens when we pass away. It’s something we want to sweep under the carpet and not think about, and because that lack of planning is done on our part, our family pays the price.
SCN: What, if any, southeast Michigan cases did you write about, and why?
AM: We did intermingle several cases from our law practice in Oakland County for the reason to show that these fights don’t just happen to celebrity families. There are a couple of celebrity stories based in SE Michigan –Rosa Parks is a good one that comes to mind. Her estate has been fought over in the court system of Detroit for years over accusations that her estate executors weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. In terms of cases from our practice, there’s a number of cases we like to share. One of them which is one of our most favorite, involves a nurse who actually had a boyfriend and used sex medication to try to coerce him out of his money and to leave all of his assets to her and nothing to his children. That led to a long lawsuit, and we were able, on behalf of the children, to protect the father and recover the money, but it just shows these crazy stories don’t just happen to the rich and famous.
SCN: It’s fascinating to read about cases like Mark Twain, who requested in his will that his works remain private but were published in the New York Times because a will is public information, whereas a trust would respect his privacy. It appears as though he was misdirected by his attorney. Should the attorney be faulted in this case, or where else would you attribute the blame.
DM: I think that’s a tough question and it’s really a case-by-case basis. I think of Michael Jackson’s case, that we talk about in the book, he had a trust but he never transferred his assets into the trust and that’s why we’re seeing this media circus going on in the public court. So I think you can’t say that the attorney is at fault in all cases. A lot of the time, attorneys may give the client information, and the client may drop the ball and not follow through.
SCN: As part of your practice, you deal with the changes of the rules of Medicaid eligibility for nursing home coverage. Given the large population of seniors, what advice can you give on the new Medicaid laws going into effect?
SCN: How can people get educated and be a self-advocate, especially if they don’t have the resources to retain an attorney?
DM: There are pro-bono organizations out there, and your listeners and readers can feel free to go to our website at the centerforelderlaw.com or contact us, and we’ll be happy to share those resources. We also have a monthly e-letter that comes out from the Center of Elder Law called the “Insight,” and they can register for that at our website as well and that will provides families with free resources and educational articles to help them deal with elder law and special needs as well as general estate planning issues.
SCN: Tell our readers what key questions they should be concerned about relative to estate planning, and what they should be looking for in an attorney?
AM: Actually in our book, Trial and Heirs, we have several tips to find a good planning estate attorney because not all attorneys are created equal, and there are a lot of attorneys who may dabble in estate planning without specializing in it. It’s not the number of gray hairs that the attorney has that shows they’ve got experience in this area. It’s important that when people talk to attorneys, they interview them, find out how much of their practice is involved in estate planning, how long have they been doing it, and work with a specialist. That’s the number one rule–working with an experienced estate planning attorney is the best way to prevent these kinds of problems from happening.
SCN: Do you have any speaking engagements planned in the area in the upcoming months, and if so where?
DM: Absolutely. We have a lot of speaking engagements scheduled everywhere from Northern Michigan to Arizona. If individuals want to learn more about our upcoming speaking engagements, they can go to our website at: trialandheirs.com and can register for the legacy update which is also a a monthly e-letter that comes out and keeps families apprised of not only our speaking engagements coming up, but get information on the latest celebrity cases and what their families can learn from those cases.