In estate law, a sense of fair play is crucial to every element of the legal process - from the drafting of wills and trusts to probate and the distribution of funds and assets. Clients, attorneys and financial professionals all depend on trust, along with the implicit assumption that everyone's operating in good faith. When trust breaks down in an estate case, litigation often ensues, and in extreme circumstances law enforcement is forced to step in. So what happens when millions inexplicably go missing from an estate and beneficiaries are exploited?
The matter of Connecticut attorney Peter Clark serves as a reminder on the need for accountability and fair play in estate law. Clark, 57, made a plea bargain last month with the US Attorney on charges of mail fraud after diverting a hefty $1.8 million from his deceased client's fortune, money which he then proceeded to use for his own purposes.
When Miriam Strong of Oxford, CT, died in 2010, Peter Clark was one of two lawyers appointed as executor of her estate. Strong had wanted her substantial $4.3 million estate to be put to good use in the surrounding community: among designated beneficiaries she named schools, churches, and charities, even stating her intention to institute a scholarship for local students. But instead, Clark committed a profound violation of trust and stole over a third of Strong's estate funds for himself.
While Clark was partnered with another lawyer to act as the estate executor and supervise the distribution of money to beneficiaries, he used financial sleight-of-hand to funnel the money into his pockets. Setting up a duplicate account for the estate without the knowledge of the other attorney, he began siphoning off funds for his own interests. To cover his tracks, he would provide the probate court and beneficiaries with false accounting reports that concealed the fraud. Yet the intended recipients of the late Strong's donations noticed that they weren't getting what they were originally promised. His fellow attorney also noticed something was amiss, and found out from bank employees about the existence of Clark's dummy account. The FBI came on the scene, and Clark decided to plead out.
It's a fact of life that bad actors are on the prowl, looking to take advantage of the vulnerable among us, including beneficiaries of a deceased person's estate. Let's all cooperate - attorneys, financial professionals, clients, and loved ones - to stop fraudsters cold.