Blues great B.B. King passed away at age 89 years old Thursday, after suffering from diabetes and other health problems. He leaves behind an unmatched musical legacy in the Blues genre, along with 11 surviving children and reportedly more than 50 grandchildren.
Sadly, a dark cloud hung over the King family throughout his final days, due to a bitter dispute over the management of his care and money, involving what some claimed to be elder abuse. The battle pitted his longtime business manager, Laverne Toney, against a handful of his children.
Mr. King fathered and adopted a total of 15 children, from several different marriages, but four had previously died. Three filed a court action in Las Vegas alleging that their famous father was a victim of elder abuse at the hands of Ms. Toney.
Karen Williams, Rita Washington and Patty King said that Ms. Toney did not provide proper medical care to their father, restricted his children and friends from visiting and that there were large amounts of money missing from Mr. King's bank account. In fact, the family said it could not account for more than $1 million. The three children asked the court to appoint an independent guardian for their father to protect him and his assets.
Ms. Toney's legal team called the allegations laughable, saying his money was spent legitimately on Mr. King. Ms. Toney, who acted for Mr. King through power-of-attorney documents, contended that the legendary performer received proper care in a home hospice setting. She also said that the children were always free to schedule a visit to see him. Ms. Toney's attorney said the guardianship filing was frivolous and fundamentally flawed.
The Toney camp also believed that the filing by Mr. King's children was all about the money. Reportedly, his children contend that Mr. King's assets were in the neighborhood of $5 million.
Earlier this month, the case was presented in a Las Vegas courtroom to the county guardianship commissioner, who acted as the hearing officer. He promptly dismissed the case. The hearing officer said that not all of Mr. King's children and grandchildren had been served with copies of the filings, and he saw insufficient evidence of an emergency.
The hearing officer pointed to two different investigations that found no evidence of abuse and had recommended that Ms. Toney stay in charge. Further, Mr. King's primary care physician attended the court hearing and said Mr. King was receiving treatment for his conditions and was being made as comfortable as possible. The officer also relied on the fact that Mr. King had his own legal counsel, was not found to be mentally incompetent and could use his lawyer to protect himself if abuse was happening.
Sadly, this type of guardianship fight in court is much more common than most people think. While those involved are not usually famous blues guitarists, families frequently fight when those who are not in control feel that proper decisions are not being made by the person or people holding authority through a power of attorney. These disputes are especially common when there is a second marriage or when siblings don't get along.
IS THE FIGHT OVER?
In this case, the fact that Mr. King had a power of attorney — as well as a will and trust — led to the dispute being tossed out of court quickly. Without a proper power of attorney, the court would have been forced to take action because Mr. King's health conditions prohibited him from managing his own affairs. Clearly, the court's hearing officer felt that Mr. King's choice of his long-time manager to act under the power of attorney should be respected.
On the other hand, the risk of using powers of attorney is that those with power can sometimes abuse it. When someone untrustworthy is named under a power of attorney, it can lead to abuse — along the lines that the King children alleged happened to their father. It is impossible to say if those allegations had merit in this instance, but certainly elder abuse is a growing epidemic in our country, and many times people will use powers of attorney to perpetrate abuse, whether of a financial, physical or emotional nature.
Families who have legitimate concerns of abuse by someone with power of attorney can and should proceed to court through a guardianship (or conservatorship filing, depending on which state the person lives in). Actual evidence of abuse, or unsafe and inappropriate decisions, will be needed for those types of court proceedings to work when someone already has a proper power of attorney.
The place to start is usually with an attorney experienced in guardianship and conservatorship cases, who can help the family evaluate options and decide whether or not a court filing is the right step. Experience in these types of cases is critical because being involved in a legal dispute over the care and management of an elderly person is difficult for everyone involved.
It is best for these types of legal disputes to be addressed quickly, with the help of experienced counsel, who can attempt to steer the family towards an early resolution. Otherwise, the litigation often drags on even after the elderly person being fought over dies.
The battle over Mr. King will likely prove to be a good example of this. While the fighting over his care has ended, no one should be surprised if more fighting occurs over Mr. King's money.
(This article was updated following the death of Mr. King on Thursday, May 14.)
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!" and attorneys with "Barron Rosenberg Mayoras & Mayoras, PC". You can reach them at [email protected].