Thursday, April 10, 2008
Wealthy Testator’s Offspring Oppose Fees for MacDonald
By ROGER M. GRACE
Attorney J. Wiseman MacDonald drew up a will in 1929 for a longtime friend and client, James Boone (“J.B.”) Lankershim, a widower. The testator had accumulated a considerable fortune as a subdivider of the San Fernando Valley. Under the will, Lankershim’s son and daughter were to divide equally the lion’s share of the estate, with some hefty bequests to the Roman Catholic Church and others.
Lankershim died on Oct, 16, 1931 in a Brooklyn, New York, hospital. The value of his estate was reported at the time to be about $8 million…roughly the equivalent of $98 million today.
Within a few days, MacDonald dutifully filed the will he had drafted. But then (lo and behold!) a new will, made back east two weeks before Lankershim’s death, emerged. It was provided to MacDonald by one Fred Melville Foster whose wife was personal attendant and nurse to Lankershim.
Under this new instrument, the progeny would each get three-tenths of the estate. Among other beneficiaries were Foster (no surprise, eh?) and MacDonald, himself, each to receive a one-tenth interest in the estate.
In conformity with this latter will, special letters of administration were issued on Nov. 19, 1931 to MacDonald and the Bank of America National Trust & Savings Association. Lankershim’s son and daughter—who had each filed a contest to the Oct. 2 will based on alleged undue influence by Foster and his wife—made no objection to that appointment. In February, 1932, the powers of the administrators became general.
Then started the harrassment of MacDonald by the children of his late compatriot.
The son moved to have MacDonald and the bank ousted as administrators, to be replaced by himself. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Albert Lee Stephens turned him down on March 10, 1932, finding that the estate was in good hands. That decision was challenged by way of a petition for writ of mandate, which the Court of Appeal on March 19 denied.
On Nov. 22, 1932, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles S. Crail denied a petition to probate the second will after MacDonald read a statement telling of an investigation conducted as to the circumstances surrounding the signing of that will and his conclusion that it should not be honored.
That same day, one Irene Herbert brought suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to recover $500,000 from the estate based on personal services she had provided Lankershim over the three-year period preceding his death.
Despite MacDonald’s repudiation of a will under which he would personally benefit (and assignment of any rights he might have under that will to the children) and his efforts to protect the estate from a claim for half a million dollars, Lankershim’s offspring sought to block the lawyer from collecting any fees, at all, for his legal services.
The Van Nuys News’ Feb. 23, 1933 edition reports:
Fees totaling $56,443 for legal services to the estate of the late J. B. Lankershim, pioneer San Fernando Valley capitalist, were allowed J. Wiseman Macdonald this week through a decision filed in superior court.
The decision came from Judge May D. Lahey, who several weeks ago conducted a hearing in which Colonel Lankershim’s son and daughter, John I. Lankershim and Doria Lankershim, objected to payment of any fees to Macdonald as attorney on the ground that he was entitled to payment only for his service as a co-special administrator with the Bank of America.
Macdonald had waived administrator’s fees. Judge Lahey held that Lankershims were not in a position to complain inasmuch as they knew Macdonald was rendering valuable legal services for the estate soon after Colonel Lankershim’s death, but made no objection until a few weeks ago.
The court also allowed Macdonald a fee of $15,000 for extra services in connection with the suit for $500,000 filed by Mrs. Irene Herbert, former nurse and companion of Colonel Lankershim.
John and Doria Lankershim appealed. While the Court of Appeal on Sept. 16, 1935, partially reversed the trial court, the California Supreme Court on June 23, 1936, affirmed, in full. The issue, as the high court saw it, was whether any award was justified in light of that court’s 1926 decision that an administrator, who is also a lawyer, can’t get paid separately for legal services rendered to the estate. The court found that the present circumstances warranted an exception, explaining:
“[I]t was well understood by the court, that Mr. Macdonald proposed to waive all claim to fees as special administrator and look only to such allowance as might be made for his services as an attorney for the administrators. The record leaves no doubt that this was clearly understood by appellants, and that although they were given full opportunity to state any objection which they might have to such arrangement, they made no such objection until the services had been fully performed, and the time arrived for payment. Under these circumstances we are of the opinion that appellants are now estopped by their own conduct.”
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