February 2010

Demanding Accountability

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Astor attorney’s disbarment:
too little, little too late

By Lou Ann Anderson

Francis Morrissey

Disbarment is the latest development in the saga of Francis X. Morrissey, the New York estate planning attorney who schemed to loot millions of dollars from Brooke Astor's estate.  In October 2009, Morrissey was convicted of four felony and one misdemeanor counts including forgery and scheming to defraud the late philanthropist.

Brooke Astor

Anthony Marshall, Morrissey's co-defendant and Astor's son, was at the same time found guilty of 14 (out of 15) counts comprising 13 felonies, one misdemeanor.  December brought each man a one to three year prison sentence though prior to their January surrender date, an appeals court judge ruled the two can remain free pending their appeal, a process anticipated to last for years.

While a New York state appeals court may hope Morrissey's disbarment plays as a show of the legal industry's commitment to professional integrity, based on his past record, this move plays more like a Pat Benatar song - specifically ="it's a little too little, it's a little too late."

Media reports paint a picture of an attorney with, at best, a pattern of questionable professional conduct.  In August 2006, here's how The New York Post characterized Morrissey:

Francis X. Morrissey Jr. has befriended and done estate work for at least six people who died in their 80s and 90s- most of whom changed their wills shortly before dying to make sure he got a bigger piece of their fortunes, court records show.

The article outlined how one client, 83-year-old Sam Schurr, changed his will the day prior to his death resulting in Morrissey receiving his East 57th Street apartment and valuable artwork in addition to $300,000 for which the attorney was previously designated.  The Post reported that "=91undue influence' - taking advantage of his clients' mental states for his own benefit" was alleged in two cases, included Schurr's, but that due to settlements in both cases, charges officially remained unsubstantiated.

Here is how The Post describes Morrissey's befriending of Schurr:

Records show Morrissey has made his longtime friendships with other rich people pay off.

Morrissey, who was admitted to the bar in 1973, was doing estate work by the mid-'70s. In 1979, he befriended Jay Lovestone, labor party leader, co-founder of the Communist Party of America and CIA operative.

He was named co-executor of Lovestone's 1986 will, which was prepared when Lovestone was 86. He died in 1990, and left a chunk of his estate to Morrissey, who said in court papers that he'd overseen Lovestone's medical care for the last few years of his life.

In an affidavit, Morrissey said he'd been introduced to Lovestone by Page Morris, "who was a close friend of his for over 50 years, and a very close friend of my own family for many years."

Morrissey also did legal work for Morris, who died in 2002 at age 98. Her 2001 will left Morrissey one-third of her estate after her debt cleared.

It was through Lovestone that Morrissey became friends with Schurr, who was married to Lovestone's niece.

In a subsequent Post article, a dispute over Page Morris' estate is detailed:

The Brooke Astor lawyer who has made a healthy living off his elderly, ailing clients' estates has made a "practice" of taking advantage of their "advanced age and fragile condition," court papers charge.

Francis X. Morrissey Jr.'s "plan," the filing says, was carried out by him and another lawyer, Warren Forsythe, who drafted all of the wills that name Morrissey as a beneficiary and executor.

The allegations were contained in an estate challenge by the family of a woman named Louise Page Morris, who died in 2002 at age 98. Morrissey and Forsythe were named co-executors and co-trustees of her estate in her 2001 will, which awarded Morrissey a large chunk of her fortune.

Her grandchildren accused the pair of "fraud," and said at the time the will "was claimed to be signed, our grandmother was disabled by the effects of her advanced age and so incapacitated by the undue influence" of Morrissey and Forsythe that she "was not capable of making a valid will of her own."

They also charged that she "had been moved out of her own home when it was sold" by Morrissey, "who then made payments from the proceeds of the sale to himself."

The dispute was settled last month, court records show. There was no finding that Morrissey committed any wrongdoing, but he gave up his one-third claim to the estate and repaid the estate $10,000, records show.

A January 2008 New York Times blog headline read "How Francis X. Morrissey Swindled New York's Best and Brightest." Another Times article during the same timeframe described the activities of Morrissey and two other lawyers, Warren J. Forsythe and Peter J. Kelley.

It also provided a striking illustration of how Mr. Morrissey and two other New York lawyers together became involved in estates, often of wealthy and prominent people whom Mr. Morrissey had known, sometimes for decades.

They have been criticized for their involvement in a succession of such cases.

The three lawyers have collected sizable fees for serving as executors or trustees and for performing legal work on estate and trust matters, and Mr. Morrissey has been the beneficiary of a number of bequests. Some of those wills have been challenged in court and have resulted in settlements.

The Times also detailed the case of Elisabeth von Knapitsch.

Ms. von Knapitsch was a widow when Mr. Forsythe drafted a new will for her that she signed on July 17, 1997. Under the will, Mr. Morrissey received most of Ms. von Knapitsch's $15 million estate, including her six-room apartment on Park Avenue. Mr. Forsythe, who had served as her lawyer, was co-executor of the estate.

Upon Ms. von Knapitsch's death at age 91 in 2000, some of her relatives and a probate official argued that the will was the result of fraud and "duress and undue influence" by Mr. Morrissey "and others."

The dispute was resolved in a settlement, with Mr. Morrissey, who had known Ms. von Knapitsch and her late husband since the 1970s, still receiving a significant portion of the bequests.

The same day that Ms. von Knapitsch signed her will, Dr. Alexandra Adler, an authority on schizophrenia and one of the first female neurologists to teach at Harvard Medical School, signed hers at the age of 95. The same three witnesses were used in both women's wills. Mr. Forsythe prepared the document and was named a co-executor of Dr. Adler's estate.

The will stipulated that Mr. Morrissey was to receive 40 percent of what was left of her estate after all other bequests had been made. Dr. Adler died in January 2001 at 99.

Anne Hilde Huston, a von Kanpitsch friend dating back to the women having first met at a dance class in Germany when they were 10, was another client of Morrissey. Huston emigrated to New York in 1936 to escape the Nazis.  Upon her death, Morrissey inherited from her a house in Maine house and 29 acres of land.

"A long-term pattern exists in which Mr. Forsythe has prepared wills" in which "Mr. Morrissey is designated as a beneficiary, and Mr. Morrissey or Mr. Forsythe is named as a fiduciary," a lawyer named Donald Novick wrote in an affidavit in 2003.

In a May 2009 article, The New York  Times offered that despite Morrissey's involvement with estate disputes that were settled via confidential agreements and avoided admissions of wrongdoing, that "Mr. Morrissey's most serious problem as a lawyer stemmed from work he had done in the field of admiralty law."

In 1995, he was issued a two-year suspension by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court linked to his representation of a Spanish company, Mar Oil, in a dispute it was having with an insurer over the loss of one of its supertankers. Mr. Morrissey, who was in disagreement with Mar Oil over his fee, was found to have wrongfully taken $925,675 out of an escrow account belonging to the firm to compensate himself, and to have deceived a top company executive into signing a letter that approved the payment, according to court documents.

In November 1996, Mr. Morrissey submitted his resignation from the State Bar of California with charges pending against him, according to records. A spokeswoman for the bar said that the charges remain confidential.

Morrissey's disbarment is one of several recent developments that should trouble anyone respectful of American property rights and/or desiring to believe in our legal system.  Without the Astor case, how many more estate looting complaints would have had to surface for action to be taken?  How many families harmed?  How many more assets questionably diverted?

Dupe the dying so you can steal their stuff.  That's a lowbrow description that depicts a lowdown act increasingly perpetrated on all sizes of estates.  For the activity surrounding these estates to be so known and documented, lawyers and other legal authorities knew what was going on.  Perhaps only those harmed by Morrissey's actions viewed these patterns as a problem.  By legal industry standards, Morrissey's disbarment may be a job well done.

For the affected families as well as those who believe in American property rights, this seems a little too little, a little too late.

More Articles by Lou Ann Anderson

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