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AG Nessel Prevails on Appeal, Sends Message to all Fiduciaries for Elderly-Financial Exploitation Will Not Be Tolerated

LANSING – The Michigan Court of Appeals has agreed with a probate court judge and the Michigan Department of Attorney General that a now-deceased St. Clair County woman lacked the capacity to sign her estate over to her guardian, a senior retirement community leasing agent who drafted the will to name herself sole beneficiary of the elderly woman’s estate.

The Michigan Department of Attorney General filed objections in the St. Clair County probate case after Lisa Tramski became a guardian for 85-year-old resident Pauline Runyon and unilaterally drafted a will making herself beneficiary of Runyon’s estate.  

Probate Court Judge John D. Tomlinson ruled in September 2019 that Runyon lacked the capacity to sign the will and that Tramski exerted excessive influence on Runyon. The case was appealed and the Michigan Court of Appeals on Thursday affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  

“A fiduciary – for instance a guardian, a power of attorney or a conservator – has a legal duty to act for someone else’s benefit while subordinating their own personal interest,” Nessel said. “Writing a will where the guardian gets everything, and the charities mentioned in previous wills are left with nothing clearly breaches this duty. My team is on high alert for any similar action and we invite the public to file complaints with my office. Let this case serve as a warning to anybody intent on exploiting a vulnerable adult in Michigan: We are watching, and with our local law enforcement partners, we will aggressively pursue those who breach these duties and line their own pockets.” 

Runyon, who had no living heirs, became a resident of the retirement community where Tramski worked as the leasing agent. Within months of meeting Runyon, Tramski was able to obtain large monetary gifts from Runyon for herself and her son. Following an accident which resulted in a head injury causing Runyon to lose much of her memory, Tramski became Runyon’s guardian.   

Less than two months after the accident and only days before Runyon’s death, Tramski had a friend – who also worked at the retirement community – provide a will to Runyon that Tramski drafted, making herself the sole beneficiary of Runyon’s estate. Nursing and progress notes indicate that Tramski signed a do-not-resuscitate order for Runyon and requested “comfort care or hospice” the following day. 

While the case was on appeal, a 2010 will surfaced and was admitted to probate in St. Clair County. The 2010 will leaves Runyon’s entire estate to various charities. 

Elder abuse complaints can be filed online with the Attorney General’s office.

Attorney General Nessel has made elder abuse a top priority for her administration, assisting in the creation of the Michigan Elder Abuse Task Force. The task force has outlined several recommendations to improve protections for Michigan’s elderly populations, including proposing a certification requirement for those serving as guardians. Currently, no qualifications or training is necessary to be a guardian, just a judge’s appointment. 

Visit the Attorney General’s website for more information on the Elder Abuse Task Force.  

A copy of the Court of Appeals ruling is available here

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