The Eastern District of Virginia Bankruptcy Court issued an opinion on a case with a unique factual scenario almost three years ago, on February 6, 2013 in the case of In Re Woodworth, (Bankr. E.D. Va., No. 11-11051-BFK, Feb. 6, 2013). The case is important because it speaks to the larger issue of fraudulent intent and how even when a trust settlor relies on a seemingly befitting and authoritative disclaimer against fraudulent conveyances, a Court can still find fraud. It also speaks to the vital need to consult with competent counsel for all major financial decisions, to insure that those decisions do not impact eligibility for medicaid or other government programs.
The case centered on a woman’s attempt, and seeming initial success, at what the Court characterized as medicaid fraud. The case involved the debtor, Holly Woodworth and her mother, Dorothy Lee Stutesman. Assuming that the facts of the opinion are accurate, it seems that Ms. Stutesman was rather poor in her money management skills. Ms. Stutesman first entrusted her husband to manage her finances and then her daughter, Ms. Woodworth, after her husband passed away. Most specifically, she first invested a very large sum of money, at least $143,000, with Merrill Lynch, although she used Ms. Woodworth’s social security number to open and listed her as the account owner. Both Ms. Woodworth and Ms. Stutesman both testified under oath that this arrangement was to protect the money from those who would prey on Ms. Stutesman’s lack of financial ability. Most importantly, Ms. Stutesman added that in addition to her desire to protect the money from potential scammers, she did not want assets in her name, in order to be eligible for Medicaid and other public benefits, if and when she should need them. In 2010, after the hit to the stock market, the parties created a trust.
The Bankruptcy Court found the language of the engagement letter that came along with the creation of the trust noteworthy and for good reason. Most specifically, the engagement letter stated that the trust “avoids creditors claims of fraudulent conveyance and civil conspiracy to divest yourself of valuable assets, and avoids IRS trigger for a taxable transaction.” Id. At 3. Both parties recognized that the money in the Merrill Lynch account and then trust was Ms. Stutesman’s. Ms. Woodworth filed bankruptcy due to events and factors unrelated to the trust, although she claimed that she only held title to the funds in the trust but no equitable interest.
In addressing the very heart of the issue The Court summed up the essential holding of the case, when it addressed the trust in issue. As judged from the description of the trust in the opinion, it seems as it was not tailor made for the mother and daughter but rather a poorly drafted stock trust that was ambiguous, long winded and “internally inconsistent” with the specific design of protecting assets from creditors. While the Court conceded that the evidence did indicate the Ms. Woodworth did not ever treat the money as her own, the Court also found that Ms. Stutesman also engaged in Medicaid fraud. Towards that end, the Court determined that the form of the trust must trump the fraud and therefore the corpus of the trust was part of Ms. Woodworth’s bankruptcy estate.
As with any financial decision that may impact medicaid eligibility, it is always best to consult with an experienced elder law and estate planning attorney to determine an overall larger strategy.