The rules and practices of probate courts, which oversee the transfer of property from people who die or are declared incompetent, vary from state to state. This checkerboard of state practices can leave individuals whose probate issues cross state boundaries in a legal no-man's-land.
Such is the case with Lillian Glasser, 85, whose plight is the subject of an article in the Dec. 28, 2005, New York Times. A lifelong New Jersey resident with a $25 million fortune, Mrs. Glasser is being forbidden to return to her home state until the Bexar County Probate Court in San Antonio, Texas, can decide her fate.
Mrs. Glasser, who suffers from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, was placed under Texas guardianship while visiting her daughter there. Mrs. Glasser's son and many of her New Jersey friends contend that she wishes to return to her home in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Mrs. Glasser's daughter used her power of attorney to assume control of her mother's wealth. (An investigation by Texas Adult Protective Services found no wrongdoing by the daughter.)
New Jersey is also claiming jurisdiction over Mrs. Glasser. The Middlesex County Board of Social Services has filed a complaint in New Jersey Superior Court seeking a public guardian for her as a resident of that state.
In a Dec. 28 ruling, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery took over part of the complex case, calling the dispute "legal fratricide" between sibling rivals. Biery sent parts of the case back to Bexar County Probate Court where a trial will be held over who should become the guardian of Mrs. Glasser and her $25 million estate. But because the principal parties come from three states, Biery kept control over other issues.
Some states require residency in order for a probate court to have jurisdiction. Other states, including Texas, require only physical presence.
"These cases are popping up all over the country," says Terry Hammond, executive director of the National Guardianship Association. "The combination of the mobile character of society plus the demographics of an aging population combine to create a potentially volatile situation."
In response to a growing number of such interstate disputes, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws is drafting nationwide probate standards similar to those relating to child custody.
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