Widely beloved throughout the world of baseball, especially in Chicago, Ernie Banks — a/k/a Mr. Cub — rose from humble beginnings. He began his career earning seven dollars a day in the Negro Leagues, before crossing the color barrier and becoming the Chicago Cubs’ most popular player ever.
After his playing career, Banks has been widely respected as a positive role model in baseball and beyond. He continued to break new ground, becoming the first African-American Ford Motor Company dealer ever and being actively involved in charity work throughout his life after baseball. In 2013, President Obama awarded Banks the National Congressional Medal of Honor.
Ernie Banks died on January 23rd at age 83 from a heart condition. Interestingly, his death certificate listed dementia as a “significant condition contributing” to his death. Why is this important?
Only three months before he died, Ernie Banks signed a new set of estate planning documents, including a new will, trust, power of attorney, and healthcare directive. The new documents left his agent and caregiver, Regina Rice, in control of everything. Strangely, the will and trust completely excluded his family members, instead naming Rice as his sole beneficiary. In fact, the documents expressly stated that no provisions were being made for Bank’s estranged wife (against whom he had filed for divorce) and also cut out his three adult children from a prior marriage.
This means that Rice would stand to inherit not only whatever assets and wealth Ernie Banks accumulated during his life (the specifics haven’t been revealed yet), but the right to control and profit from his name, likeness, and image, too. Banks’ children have vowed to go to court to stop that from happening.
The lawyer for the Banks family says they plan to vigorously contest the will. The children believe that Rice coerced their father to sign the new estate planning documents, by controlling and manipulating him. They also say that in the months leading up to his death, Rice prevented them from speaking with their father by phone. They believe that Rice used her position of trust and confidence to take advantage of Banks’ dementia to their detriment.
Rice released a statement of her own refuting the allegations. In it, she said that she understood why the children would be concerned, but “the record and those closest to Ernie will dispel any iota of concern regarding my relationship with Ernie and his trust in me to [carry] out his wishes.”
The warring factions have already been to court once to fight over Mr. Cub’s wishes. Banks said in multiple interviews in the past that he wanted to be cremated after he died, with his ashes spread over Wrigley Field. Banks’ ex-wife, supported by his children, went to court to stop the cremation and successfully won the right to have Banks buried instead of cremated. Even though the couple was estranged, living apart, and in the middle of divorce proceedings, Banks’ wife still was considered to be his next of kin, thereby giving her the right to control his burial arrangements.
The fight over controlling his image and inheriting his assets will be much more complex and drawn out than the battle to bury the baseball legend. As an initial matter, people are allowed to leave their assets to whomever they want — caregivers and other non-family members included — but only if they are of sound mind and free from what the law calls “undue influence.” Many times families fight over whether a will or trust represented the decedent’s actual wishes, or whether it was instead signed under coercion, manipulation, fraud, or other type of improper influence.
These cases are rarely clear-cut. The fact that Ernie Banks had dementia – and of course that he signed the new documents only three months before he died — makes the dispute even murkier. Indeed, because Rice was in a position of trust over Banks — as his caregiver and agent both — the law will actually assume on a preliminary basis that she did exercise undue influence.
This means that the burden of proof will likely lie with Rice during the case. In other words, she will have to prove that she did not commit undue influence, rather than the children having to prove she did do so. The shifting burden of proof is critical in cases of this nature, because undue influence almost always occurs behind closed doors, without anyone to directly witness or document the improper influence. The question of proof is always tough.
Ernie Banks’ medical records will become very important. When did his dementia start? How significant was his dementia in October of last year when he signed the documents? It’s a good question, especially since Mr. Banks appeared sharp and lucid in an interview with Sports Illustrated last spring. The extent of his dementia may be the key determining factor in the dispute.
While the outcome of this case is very much in doubt at this point, one thing is clear: it’s a tragedy that the legacy of someone so beloved and widely respected will be tarnished by fighting over his estate. Yet, this is far from uncommon — and not just for families of the rich and famous. These types of fights happen regularly in our country, to people from all walks of life.
The best way to prevent an estate battle from happening in your family is with good estate planning done before someone has dementia or a question of mental incompetence. While certainly there are often good reasons for changes to wills and trusts later in life, whenever someone is cut out by a person diagnosed with dementia — especially when the person who benefits from the change is a caregiver — an inheritance fight is certain to follow.
In fact, the State of Illinois recently passed a new law aimed at making it easier for families to win court challenges against wills that favor caregivers. Interestingly, the new law was passed last year, but only became effective as of January 1, 2015. This means any wills done late in 2014 — like the will of Ernie Banks — do not fall under the new law.
One can only wonder if the timing of his changed estate planning documents was done with this new law in mind.