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Thy Will Be Undone

The case that shocked New York City offers lessons on how to protect your own estate.

It had all the elements of a soap opera: a feuding family, huge wealth, scandalous allegations. Nine years ago New York City socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Despite her condition, she signed off on major changes to her will—changes that benefited her only son, Anthony Marshall, now 85.

A year before Astor's death in 2007 at 105, Marshall's son Philip Marshall, now 56, asked a court to remove his father as his grandmother's guardian. The court named Susan Robbins, a specialist in guardianships and eldercare law in the Manhattan office of Miller Canfield, to represent Astor. Robbins came to believe that codicils to the will had been forged; at press time, the elder Marshall was facing grand larceny and conspiracy charges in New York State's Supreme Court. We asked Robbins about the case and ways to prevent estate fraud.

Q: What were the red flags for you in this case? Tony Marshall seemed to have abdicated his role as his mother's caretaker. He didn't really oversee what the nurses and housekeeping staff were doing. I looked at the files of Mrs. Astor's lawyer and saw changes to her wills. Mrs. Astor was being more generous to Tony Marshall than she had been in the past.

Q: Was there a "eureka" moment that made you suspicious when you saw the codicils? Mrs. Astor's signature on her third codicil was almost perfect, but on prior codicils she had trouble writing her name.

Q: What are other ways you've seen older people exploited? In one case a priest had a parishioner sign over her house to him. He did this to other parishioners by isolating them and keeping them away from family and friends. I've also seen mortgage bankers get people to take out mortgages they can't afford, and the person gets evicted.

Q: Could Astor have protected herself better? Mrs. Astor did what people should do: give powers of attorney and a health care proxy and a living will to people you trust. It's also good to tell your wishes to as many people as possible. If Mrs. Astor had done that, maybe some of this could have been avoided. I know Tony Marshall is alleging that his mom had a change of heart and wanted to show her love for him. If this is true, and she had let more people know it, it would have given more credence to what happened later. But significant changes took place in her wills that had not happened before.

Meryl Gordon is the author of the bestselling Mrs. Astor Regrets (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

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