There are few cases in our civil-court system more painful than those that deal with conflicts over guardianship of the elderly.
They bitterly divide families — turning siblings against each other, and children against parents. They also force proud, accomplished people to have their basic mental competence tested, dissected and discussed.
Two months ago, I wrote about a similarly bitter San Antonio probate case, this one involving Hattie Poole, a widely admired 85-year-old millionaire and philanthropist whose late husband, Duane, passed away in 2012.
Poole, whose estate has been estimated to be at least $3 million, subsequently established a relationship with Ben Marek, a man 30 years her junior, and her three sons began to worry that Poole was being manipulated by Marek into burning through her estate.
Last December, Poole attempted to transfer $225,000 to Marek, and Frost Bank responded by freezing her account. She also transferred property to Marek and put him on the payroll at Industrial Communications, the company she inherited from her husband, despite allegations that he does not actually work there.
A common denominator in the Benson and Poole cases has been the involvement of Bexar County Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff, who placed Poole under the temporary guardianship of her son, Jeff.
Poole’s biggest source of frustration with Rickhoff was that he denied her the opportunity to pick her own attorney. She believed the decision rendered her powerless: not only denied control of her financial affairs but also forced to pay for a court-appointed attorney she believed did not represent her interests.
Rickhoff declined to be interviewed for this column.
Barry Snell, the attorney Poole selected, filed a motion in Rickhoff’s court on February 13, requesting that Snell be allowed to represent Poole. The motion argued that Poole is “mentally competent and has capacity to contract,” and that denying her the right to the counsel of her choice amounted to a violation of the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment.
In the two months since I wrote that column, Poole’s guardianship status has remained in limbo, but there has been a surprising development with her case.
During an Internet search, Poole noticed that local attorney Phil Ross has represented several elderly people in probate disputes, so she enlisted Ross to join Snell on her team. According to Poole’s daughter Laura, who has backed her mother in her legal fight, Snell subsequently decided to withdraw from the case.
It would be an understatement to say that Ross and Rickhoff have some history together.
They’ve often butted heads in the courtroom, and last year Ross decided to challenge Rickhoff in the Republican Primary. In March 2014, Rickhoff filed a complaint against Ross with the Texas Ethics Commission, alleging that Ross failed to include a disclosure statement on political advertising. TEC rejected the complaint, but Rickhoff won the primary with more than 70 percent of the vote.
On January 22 of this year, Rickhoff filed a grievance against Ross with the State Bar of Texas, stating that Ross had forced him to endure “the most bizarre behavior I’ve ever encountered from one lawyer.” (A decision is still pending from the State Bar.)
On July 27, Ross — acting as Poole’s attorney — filed a motion requesting that Rickhoff recuse himself from Poole’s case. Any further guardianship decisions must wait until the recusal issue is resolved.
Ross also contends that changes in the Texas Estates Code enacted on June 19 will protect Poole’s right to hire her own attorney. The law authorizes wards in guardianship cases to “petition the court and retain counsel of the ward’s choice.”
Two months ago, Poole told me: “I feel as though I’ve been pushed in a corner.” It’s a sentence that could be uttered by countless elderly people in estate cases.
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Elderly millionaire’s estate battle takes a surprising turn