by Matthew Skotak
Casey Kasem (famed American Top 40 DJ), Tom Benson (owner of the NBA’s Pelicans and NFL’s Saints), and Sumner Redstone (controlling shareholder of Viacom and CBS) have much in common: wealth, prestige, and status. Though many may envy their fortune and fame, they may not envy their other common thread; competency disputes.
When Casey Kasem’s health deteriorated from Parkinson’s disease, an ugly court battle ensued between his children and his wife, which did not end until he died. A challenge to Tom Benson’s competency arose after he decided to vest controlling interest in the Saints and Pelicans with his wife, and lock-out his other heirs from those teams. Similarly, Sumner Redstone’s competency was challenged by his longtime companion, Manuela Herzer, after she was removed as his health care agent and was kicked out of his California mansion. These conflicts are public and recognizable, however, thousands of similar anonymous disputes occur every day across the country involving ordinary families.
Historically disputes over competence arose after a person’s death, and involved traditional will contests, inheritance disputes, and questions regarding competence at the time a will was signed. But as our population continues to age, the frequency and assorted nature of the disputes will only continue to grow. Several factors contribute to this escalation including: 1) unresolved underlying family issues; 2) state-specific and constantly changing medical and legal standards; and 3) wealth.
Many conflicts hinge on whether an aging person had the capacity to make important personal and financial decisions, such as selling a home, changing a will/trust, or making a substantial gift and to what extent others may have improperly influenced such decisions. Fortunately, as these cases evolve, more protections are being afforded to the aging individuals and more scrutiny is being placed on those challenging their competence. As we currently witness with Sumner Redstone, when millions or billions of dollars are on the line, it only makes the stress, costs, and emotions that much higher.