The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has disbarred a lawyer for his conduct in selling living trusts to senior citizens.
The term “living trust” is a marketing name given to a revocable trust you create during lifetime often with a purpose of avoiding probate at your death. I’ve written before about living trusts, their proper uses, and the problems surrounding their improper marketing. See my article Avoiding Living Trust Scams (July1, 2013).
On Monday (July 28, 2014) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an order disbarring attorney Brett Weinstein due to his involvement with the misleading sales of living trusts and the related “legal advice” given by non-lawyer salespeople. The scams also typically involved the sales of high commission annuities to seniors.
Mr. Weinstein’s disbarment was based on the Report and Recommendations of the Pennsylvania Lawyer’s Disciplinary Board. You can read the Report and learn about how the scams operated here.
The Report describes numerous instances of inappropriate sales of living trusts and annuities to vulnerable consumers. Here is the Report’s description of the normal approach:
[T]he client, usually a senior citizen, was identified through advertisements, seminars or cold calls; the nonlawyer sales agent went to the client's home and sold the living trust through an "avoid probate" sales pitch, using Respondent's [Weinstein’s] brochure and misleading charts; the agent had the client sign various documents and a Weinstein fee agreement, collected the fee and obtained personal and financial information.
This information was given to Respondent's law office, where a living trust was drafted, despite the fact that Respondent had scant or no contact with the client and had not gone through the proper steps to provide competent representation in estate planning, such as reviewing existing estate planning documents, discussing dispositive intentions, analyzing tax situations, and determining the competency of the client. The living trust was taken back to the client's home for signature by a nonlawyer delivery agent, at which point the agent attempted the sale of annuities. The only explanation of the living trust given to the client came from the nonlawyer agent.
This type of living trust flimflam has been prevalent in Pennsylvania for decades. As described by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, the living trust scams use “high-pressure sales pitches which prey on the fear that assets will be tied up indefinitely or that estates are prone to heavy taxes and fees if a living trust is not in place. Con artists often rely on unfamiliar terms such as "probate" and "executor" to convince consumers that a living trust is right for them even though many of the complex rules and fees that can complicate estate distributions do not exist in Pennsylvania.” (See, Pennsylvania Attorney General’s brochure: Beware of Living Trust Scams.)
Seniors should be very wary of solicitations they receive regarding probate avoidance and living trusts via direct mail, telephone calls, free dinner seminars and/or in-home visits. Be especially careful if the “advisor” or company is from outside of your local geographical area. For most consumers it makes sense to stick with local advisors who have been serving your community for a while and who are likely to be there for you in the future.
For some tips on how to find a good local elder law attorney to help with estate and elder law concerns see my recent article How to Find a Good Lawyer for Older Adult Issues.
Pennsylvania legislators looking to curb elder abuse in our Commonwealth may want to consider tightening the laws that apply to the deceptive sales of living trusts and annuities to seniors.