Etta James is best known for her classic At Last, but now at just 72 years old she is making news with the sad story of her family’s fight to control her money and her care. Ms. James is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease with dementia and also has leukemia. According to her doctor, Ms. James can no longer perform any of the activities of daily living, such as eating, bathing or dressing.
To make matters worse, her mental incapacity has sparked a family fight that has led to a lawsuit. Her husband of 41 years filed a court proceeding to take control of nearly one million dollars of bank accounts in her name. He claims the money would be used to pay for her care and keep her at home, rather than in a nursing home.
Etta James had a Durable Power of Attorney naming her son (from a previous relationship) as her attorney in fact in 2008, which granted her son the power to make her legal decisions in the event of her incapacity. Normally, this would trump her husband’s claim, but he claims that Etta was not mentally competent when this document was signed; therefore, it should be declared invalid.
The son claims that he, like the husband, wants Etta’s money to be used for her care and to keep her at home, rather than in a long-term care facility. But the son wants someone independent to manage the money instead of Etta’s husband.
Etta James is a resident of California, which is a community-property state, so the husband’s lawyer has filed asked for Etta’s money to be declared community property and to permit him to move the cash to a joint account with his name on it.
In February, 2011, a California judge froze the assets of Ms. James, authorizing a $30,000 withdrawal from Etta James’ accounts to cover her medical needs and ordered a medical evaluation to determine whether she is receiving the appropriate treatment.
All of this could have been avoided if Ms. James’ documents had been updated. This sad case illustrates the need to have estate planning documents and incapacity planning completed well before the need arises. Work with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have the documents you need to not only distribute your assets upon your passing, but to address situations that can come up later in life.