25th Mar 2014

Rosa Parks is an iconic American figure. The Congress named her “the mother of the freedom movement”. Her birthday, February 4, and the historical day of her arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger at the requests of the bus driver, December 1st, are both known as “Rosa Parks Day” and commemorated in California and Ohio. 

She became an important part of the Civil Rights Movement, and she received recognition for the vital role she played, the Congressional Medal of Gold and the Presidential Medal of Freedom being just two of the honors she received.  

At her death, in 2005, her estate was evaluated at little over 370,000 USD.  Of course, the monetary value of the estate was just a tiny fraction of its historical value. Her final wish was that her estate passes in the care of a charitable institute which she founded, naming her close friend, Elaine Steele, both overseer of the estate and head of this charitable institute. Elaine Steele would have also received 90% of the royalties, while her nieces and nephews only 10%.

However, the latter contested Rosa Parks’ final will and trust in court. Accusations of undue influence on Parks and mismanagement led the judge to remove Steele and the other executor named by Parks, replacing them with two attorneys. 

Shortly before Rosa Parks’ estate trial, the two parties reached a settlement agreement whose terms, although confidential, recognized the will and trust as valid, with all the legal consequences resulting. The only change was that the nieces and nephews of Parks received additional royalties.

It is sad to see the effects on those involved whenever estate claims are brought to court. These lawsuits are incredibly stressful and energy draining for the parties involved. Most times, relations between the two parties are shattered beyond repair. Being an estate planning attorney in Orange County, I am very aware of these facts. However, it is still very painful to see something as this staining the memory of a personality who has influenced the American society as much as Rosa Parks did.

For years the last will of Rosa Parks had been ignored. When the rights of the original beneficiaries were restored, everyone expected that things would die down and we would be able to detach the memory of Rosa Parks from the ugly lawsuits following her death. However, unfortunately, this was not the case. In fact, things got, if possible, even worse.

The two restored executors of the Rosa Parks estate sued the judge who is handling the estate, Hon. F. Burton, as well as the two attorneys who had been named executors of the Rosa Parks estate by the court, J. Chase Jr. and M. Jefferson.

What is very sad is that the attorney representing Steele, who also heads the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, Rosa Parks’ legacy to the US, made serious accusations against the judge and the two attorneys: corruption, over-charging of the Estate, cronyism, and others. The accusations were released to the press and received ample coverage from the media, including from some of the top TV stations and newspapers nationwide. Moreover, Steele’s attorney went as far as discussing these accusations openly on a Detroit radio station, where he declared that he believed the judge was taking bribes. He ended by promising he would have the judge removed from the case.
Of course, the allegations were dismissed and the judge refused to give up the case. He was even backed by the chief judge of the Wayne County Probate Court. That did not stop Steele’s attorney from appealing the decision, appeal which was dismissed but will most likely be repeated.

At present, the attorney representing the two court-named former executors of the estate is planning to fight back, by filing a petition requesting that Steele’s attorney be dismissed from the case and sanctioned for the way in which he made and publicized the accusations against his clients. His petition will probably reach its goal, as Steele’s attorney has been recently sanctioned for making similar accusations in a different case without providing any evidence.

It is truly a shame that the attorney in question, representing a charitable institution bearing Rosa Parks’ name, has made such accusations without backing them with any facts or proof. Heavy words such as corruption or bribery were thrown without any sort of proof whatsoever, but were immediately picked up by the media as they were used in relation to Rosa Parks. Her name, and by extension everything she stood for, was therefore used in order to carry on a slanderous campaign against people with impeccable reputation in their fields. Not agreeing to a judge’s decision and appealing is completely different to publicizing slanderous accusations and, in the process, staining the reputation of one of our great nation’s hero.
Court battles for estates happen more often than you think. Few make it to the newspapers, but as an estate-planning attorney in Orange County, I can tell you that they are quite common. It is not just big estates that become subject to a case in court. Estates of $100,000 or less have been known to cause lengthy lawsuits.

As we have said, most of the time, the media does not cover these cases. No accusations against attorneys or judges are made. However, these cases spark painful conflicts which turn family members against one another, causing wounds which time doesn’t always heal.

Just as worse, the final wishes of the deceased are not being followed. Instead of taking time to grieve, the family has to spend time, money and energy on costly court cases. This is why it is so important that estate planning is carried out as early and as thoroughly as possible, before one’s mental competences can be questioned by those around them. My professional estate-planning services could be the key to ensuring that such problems will not happen in the case of your estate. And, if you are not certain whether now would be the best time for estate planning, I would be more than happy to answer any of your questions.

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