An Aug. 24 Houston Chronicle article highlights already embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s role in an estate case involving the two young daughters of Tanner Hunt, the now-deceased son of Dallas oil billionaire Ray Hunt and grandson Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt. While Paxton, the state’s top defender of Texas laws, faces no specific legal action in connection with this case, the scenario described is troubling for three specific reasons: it’s a classic case of Grave Robbing 101, its venue is known for legal impropriety and the article comes from a source with high credibility in writing on probate issues.
In Paxton’s role in Hunt family probate case called ill-defined and unorthodox, investigative reporter Lise Olsen along with Austin bureau reporter Lauren McGaughy describe Tanner Hunt’s 2011 suicide and the probate court actions surrounding his estate. Though the younger Hunt, 31-years-old at the time of his death, left a $200,000 estate and no will, his daughters conceivably stood to inherit that estate and had potential inheritance claims on not only a $2 million trust established for their father, but perhaps on other trusts created by their great-grandfather.
Though never married to Crystal VanAusdal, his daughters’ mother, the couple and their children lived as a family until Hunt’s move to central Texas. Despite the distance, Hunt reportedly maintained contact and paid child support.
Hunt last resided in Williamson County, but an early 2012 petition for his estate administration was filed in Collin County. The Dallas attorney filing the petition requested the appointment of W. Kirk Baker, a lawyer who, per Olsen and McGaughy, has done extensive work for the Hunt companies, as administrator of the estate.
Paxton, then a practicing attorney and veteran lawmaker, was appointed ad litem. Olsen and McGaughy write this of the appointment:
As attorney ad litem, Paxton’s role as defined in state law was to find out if were any other heirs besides Tanner’s two daughters, whose claims were known to the court. In Oct. 15, 2012, the judge declared the two girls to be the “sole lawful heirs of Tanner Hunt” and approved a $5,000 payment for Paxton.
Additionally noting how “his ad litem job normally would have been over,” the article describes Collin County Probate Judge Weldon Copeland allowing Paxton to continue representing the daughters in a role legal sources term “an unorthodox and ill-defined role in behind-the-scenes settlement negotiations involving Baker and litigation over the father’s trust.”
During his tenure, Paxton reportedly presented VanAusdal with a $750,000 settlement that he would invest for the daughters in return for a relinquishment of further claims on any Hunt family inheritances.
Per the article:
That proposed settlement was rejected by the girls’ mother, Crystal VanAusdal and ultimately replaced by a more generous confidential settlement after their mother filed a motion asking the judge to recuse himself. She filed the recusal motion after learning that an attorney whose firm had ties to the Hunt family had called the judge and Paxton prior to filing Tanner Hunt’s probate case – contact her attorneys described as improper ex parte communications. Those calls gave the mother “great concern” that the attorney and others with ties to the Hunt family “may have hand-picked the Court, the judge and the attorney ad litem” in order to disinherit her daughters, her attorneys wrote in June 2014.
The judge immediately recused himself.
While important to have, “proper estate planning” offers no guarantee of smoothly sailing through the probate process. Neither does, as Tanner Hunt’s daughters learned, clear entitlement as per state law. Even worse, legitimate heirs too often find that those charged to protect them often abuse fiduciary responsibilities and inheritance rights.
Grave Robbing 101
Wills, trusts as well as other probate instruments like guardianships and powers of attorneys have become tools routinely used to divert assets from property owners, their intended heirs and/or beneficiaries. Probate courts often function as well-organized units in which a judge has a circle of friendly attorneys and other court-related personnel working cases to ensure the creation of ongoing, lucrative revenue streams.
In nearly 10 years of following abusive probate cases, stacking the deck via attorney appointments, venue shopping and ex parte communications are all common tactics used in estate hijackings.
The article describes legal gamesmanship that occurs as attorneys take control of estates – trusts in this case – which gives long-term power not only in managing financial assets, but also over their distribution. Retention of assets allows greater authority as well as the ability to generate ongoing billable hours.
Many abusive probate actions happen quietly with targets either not knowing how or having the resources to fight this wrongdoing. Most of the time, estate disputes are relegated to civil courts creating litigation, which is time-consuming and expensive – points never lost on the estate looters. Many cases qualify to be treated as criminal actions though few are.
Wrongful diversion (i.e., direct theft) of estate assets can happen via settlement of a lawsuit – or a lawsuit threat – which serves to functionally extort assets from rightful heirs or beneficiaries seeking to cut losses and avoid prolonged litigation. Sometimes estate assets are manipulated or withheld from legitimate heirs or beneficiaries so as to provoke legal action by those parties. The ensuing case then allows a dishonest estate administrator and/or attorney to benefit from the billable hours generated (i.e., indirect theft) in defense of a contrived legal action.
Steal $250,000 from a bank, it’s a crime. The same diverted from an estate relegates harmed parties to the “pay-to-play” civil court system, which is expensive and, for many, cost prohibitive. Additional disadvantage comes with dependency on pricey legal practitioners whose welfare depends on good relations with court personnel and opposing counsel more so than with their own clients. Here, all profit except the probate abuse target. Can Texans (or anyone) protect themselves from probate abuse? discussed the many frustrations experienced by such targets.
The legal industry purposefully complicates our judicial process to make navigating its channels difficult for non-legal individuals. Wearing down legal targets through prolonged cases as well as maneuvering to exhaust their financial resources are other common tactics.
Orchestrating serial complications and obstacles helps to maintain a system, which – especially in probate matters – can be molded, amended or interpreted on demand to create and justify any desired outcome.
Location, location, location
A court known for “playing ball” is critical. Copeland, Collin County’s only probate judge, has his own reputation for questionable actions. Perhaps his greatest media notoriety came with the case of Michael and Eugenia Kidd, a Richardson couple who under a Copeland-imposed guardianship spent nearly a year in a nursing home when other less restrictive measures were applicable. The Kidds were released only when their case received significant media attention.
While Copeland has avoided the level of publicity other Metroplex probate courts have received, anecdotal accounts of his activities have circulated since the launch of EstateofDenial.com. Probate targets contacting the site have expressed outrage regarding the judge’s handling of cases. It’s also not unusual for Copeland to get mentioned in comment sections of other Texas probate abuse coverage.
Olsen has many years experience in writing both extensively and competently on probate abuse as well as on other property rights violations. She’s exposed much corruption when it comes to the web of judges and lawyers who perpetrate estate hijackings. While Olsen’s reporting has largely centered on Harris County, the “monkey see, monkey do” unoriginal machinations of local governments are repeated in courthouses throughout both this state and this nation. With experience, identifying probate wrongdoing becomes a simple task – and this case has all the markings.
An unsuspecting public is unaware of the extent to which their assets are “up for grabs” via abusive probate actions. They not only don’t recognize the volume of cases that occur, but also missing is an understanding of the administrative ease and casual process under which estate looters operate. That those charged with protecting basic inheritance rights are often the greatest perpetrators of their being violated is another point too often lost.
And for these reasons, this article should neither be discounted nor ignored.