Focus groups in estate, trust and elder financial abuse litigation are a valuable tool in determining community attitudes to undue influence and financial abuse cases.Participant selection, presentation venue and moderator approaches all play a part in this important process of community discernment.
Plaintiffs law firms like Hackard Law engage focus groups to suggest ideas, identify options, and to react to presented facts. Focus group insights help identify the communication paths necessary to present concise and compelling information to the ultimate neutral third-party trier of fact.
Purpose, size, composition and procedures make up the basic elements of a focus group.
We'll use the following fictional scenario as an example of a general narrative that a focus group may hear and consider.
- Everett James is 57 years old.
- Everett and his younger sister, Cathy are the only children of their father, Walter James.
- Their mother and Walter's wife passed away 15 years ago.
- Walter's 2010 trust provides for an equal split of his assets between Everett and Cathy.
- Walter is diagnosed with dementia in 2016.
- In mid-July 2018 Cathy, then living with her father and taking care of him, transports him to a lawyer's office to change the terms of his trust.
- The revised trust disinherits Everett and leaves everything to Cathy.
- Walter enters hospice care in late July.
- Walter dies in August of 2018, 10 days after entering hospice care.
- Cathy sends Everett of copy of Walter's trust in early September.
- Walter learns of the changed trust provisions and his disinheritance.
OK, so what do we do now? Our litigation team meets and considers the elements of Everett's case. We discuss whether a focus group might be helpful in identifying important issues in the case. We decide that the background, attitudes and life experience of a focus group will bring significant third-party insights to the case.
We know from experience the importance of matching the composition of the focus group to roughly mirror the county's jury pool where the case is litigated. It is not helpful to have a focus group of Central Valley farmers consider a case that will be tried in Alameda County. The converse, of course, is also true.
We develop our narrative presentation. It is important that it be balanced. This is not the time for advocacy. That can be later.
We learn that the focus group has widely different perceptions. A few members see this only as a family feud. Other members see this as a case of elder financial abuse. Still others think that what Cathy did is morally wrong but not legally wrong.
We value the insights. They point us toward case weaknesses as well as strengths. They assist us in a discovery plan. They tell of us our need for experts to explain concepts in a straightforward fashion. We learn. We go on.
And, we are likely to have follow up focus groups. Focus groups are a tool - in the best sense a tool for truth. In the words of Dr. Frank Luntz, "It's not what you say, it's what people hear."
If you would like to have us hear about your estate, trust or elder financial abuse case, call us at Hackard Law (916) 313-3030. We represent clients in cases in most of California's major urban areas, including Alameda, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. We only take cases where we believe that we can make a significant difference and there is a responsible party who can be made financially accountable for their wrongdoing.