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Rosa Parks probate judge acted fairly, appellate court rules

The late Rosa Parks will always be remembered for helping bring about the end of racial segregation in the United States. Her refusal to give up her seat in the “white” section of the bus in 1955 remains an inspiring moment of civil disobedience against unjust laws to subsequent generations.

However, in legal circles, Parks’ legacy will also include the lengthy probate battle over her estate that began after she died in 2005. The latest chapter in the years-long legal struggle was written on Feb. 21, when the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the probate judge who handled the case did not conspire to force the estate to pay excessive attorneys’ fees.

Parks and her husband lived in Michigan after the famous bus incident. Her estate plan indicated that her longtime personal assistant and a retired Michigan judge would act as trustees. But when her 13 nieces and nephews challenged the plan, the probate judge named a pair of attorneys in charge of the estate.

Eventually, the parties reached an agreement to split the proceeds from Parks’ assets and royalties from licensing her name. Most of the assets would go to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, an organization that Parks and her assistant founded in 1987. Twenty percent would go to the relatives.

But the matter was not entirely settled. The assistant, who now directs the institute, filed a complaint against the probate judge. She accused him of helping the attorneys he assigned as trustees to gouge Parks’ estate with excessive fees. The judge rejected the claims, and a motion to remove himself from the case.

The Wayne County chief probate judge ruled that there was no evidence of impropriety between the judge and the trustees. And on appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed. They wrote that the claim was based on nothing more than “insinuations,” and that the judge acted fairly and impartially.

They returned the case to the probate judge, recommending possible sanctions against the director’s attorney.

Hopefully, the execution of most of our readers’ estate plans will not take nine years to resolve. But this case demonstrates how a substantial estate can invite intense legal challenges, especially if there appear to be problems with the plan.

Source: Detroit Free Press, “Appeals Court upholds judge’s handling of Rosa Parks estate,” Paul Egan, Feb. 21, 2014

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