Thursday, April 12, 2012

Should attorneys marry their clients and misappropriate trust funds?

The State Bar Court of California says such conduct will get an attorney disbarred.  Ms. Lowney is, or perhaps more accurately was, an attorney practicing estate planning law in Pacifica, California.  The court has recommended that Ms. Lowney be disbarred for moral turpitude, failing to comply with the law by filing a false document, and maintaining an unjust action.

What did Ms. Lowney do?  Well, in 2000, Thor Tollefsen, an 81-year-old man, hired Ms. Lowney to help him plan his estate.  In 2002, Ms. Lowney prepared for Mr. Tollefsen a pour-over will and a revocable trust.  The value of the trust was $340,000.  The trust names some of Mr. Tollefsen's relatives in Norway as beneficiaries and successor co-trustees. 

By August 2005, Ms. Lowney—who was in her fifties—and Mr. Tollefsen became romantically involved.  Ms. Lowney promised Mr. Tollefsen that she would take care of him as he suffered from emphysema and terminal cancer.  Mr. Tollefsen then transferred to Ms. Lowney, as his attorney, the $340,000 for use in caring for him.  To accomplish this transfer, Mr. Tollefsen asked for and received permission from his relatives in Norway to transfer the money.  The relatives in Norway understood that any money left over at Mr. Tollefsen's death would be returned to the trust. 

Mr. Tollefsen's condition worsened and he agreed to marry Ms. Lowney at her request.  Because Ms. Lowney did not want Mr. Tollefsen's relatives or her own daughter (who was under 18) to find out about the marriage, she and Mr. Tollefsen arranged to have a confidential marriage.  (As an aside, I don't believe I have ever heard of a confidential marriage.  Some critics, for example this article, suggest that confidential marriages are favored by bigamists because the marriage records are under seal.)  One requirement of getting a confidential marriage license is that the applicants have to state they have been living together.  Mr. Tollefsen and Ms. Lowney falsely stated that they were living together.  They were married in early 2006.  Notably, Mr. Tollefsen refused to name Ms. Lowney as a beneficiary after their marriage.

By the fall of 2006, Mr. Tollefsen felt that Ms. Lowney was not doing a good job of taking care of him and complained to his relatives in Norway about her.  In January 2007, Mr. Tollefsen moved into a senior care facility.  He died before the month was over while on a weekend visit to his home.

After he died, Ms. Lowney transferred the trusts funds into three separate accounts and had Mr. Tollefsen cremated against his express wish to be donated to medical science.  Ms. Lowney also tried to remove Mr. Tollefsen's relatives as trustees of his trust despite the fact that she had no standing to do so.  After that removal was denied, she claimed she was Mr. Tollefsen's spouse and therefore entitled to a share of his estate.  When a trial court denied her claim that she was Mr. Tollefsen's spouse, Mr. Lowney appealed.  The California Court of Appeals was so troubled by her actions that it asked the California State Bar to decide whether a disciplinary action was needed.  The end result was the recommendation that Ms. Lowney be disbarred.

The order notes that Ms. Lowney practiced law for 32 years without being disciplined.  I am not sure what to make of this.  Are we to believe that Ms. Lowney's misappropriating client funds, making false statements, and pursuing bad faith litigation, were all her first brush with violating the rules of professional conduct?  If so, I guess Ms. Lowney believes in the maxim, "go big or go home." 

The order also states that Ms. Lowney must comply with Rule 9.20 of the California Rules of Court.  Rule 9.20 sets forth what steps a disbarred attorney must take in regards to notifying courts, clients, co-counsel,  and opposing counsel of the disbarment.  The rule also requires that the disbarred attorney file proof of compliance with the Clerk of the State Bar Court.  What penalty will Ms. Lowney face if she does not comply with the rule?  Disbarment, of course.  One might think that threatening a disbarred attorney with disbarment is an ineffective punishment.  But, I am sure the court knows what it is doing.

1 comment:

  1. You ask, "Should attorneys marry their clients and misappropriate trust funds?"

    The answer is no. One or the other: maybe. But both? No way.

    Also, if an attorney is going to "marry their clients" I suggest he or she marry just one of them. Multiple spousal clients seems like a real administrative headache.


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