Earlier this month, Stanley Martin Lieber, more famously known as Stan Lee, the comic book legend behind many of the characters in the Marvel universe, passed away at the age of 95. Though his creative genius helped him to pioneer the superhero comic industry, it did not lend itself to dealing with and preparing for the realities of an aging multi-millionaire with a net worth estimated at $70 million. Lee’s story is another cautionary tale in both estate planning and elder law, highlighting issues that many elderly face: a lack of confidence and the possibility of being influenced.
Although Lee’s death is still fresh in our hearts, his troubles began much earlier when Joanie, his wife of 69 years, died of a stroke in July 2017. Joanie was the driving force behind Lee’s success. It was she who pushed him to break the traditional archetype of the “superhero”—then an idealistically perfect person with no lasting problems, and instead, giving the superhero a flawed humanity. It was also Joanie who handled the business side of their partnership (Lee, the creative side), as both realized early on that Lee was not very business-minded. Had it not been for her firm hand and serious vetting of advisors, Lee would have lost tens of millions to his people-pleasing habit of telling them what they wanted to hear, his history of bad financial decisions, and his susceptibility to conmen and their ridiculous business propositions. (In the year since her death, it has been reported that $1.4 million went missing from his bank accounts and that Lee had worked with and broken up with more than a few business managers, attorneys, and advisors.)
And it was also Joanie who had more success in handling their 68-year old daughter, J.C., the only survivor of the comic book power couple. J.C. has built up a reputation of emotional and financial instability, with her late father having taken the brunt of her verbal abuse. In fact, back in February, Lee had signed a document stating that J.C. was financially reckless and verbally abusive towards him, also claiming that she had befriended three men with intentions to take advantage of him. The document was then notarized, but a few days later, Lee rescinded it. (And he also parted ways with the attorney who drafted and authenticated the declaration.)
Situations like Lee’s are all too common. According to the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA):
One in nine seniors reported being abused, neglected, or exploited in the past twelve months. The rate of financial exploitation is extremely high, with 1 in 20 older adults indicate some form of perceived financial mistreatment occurring in the recent past.
Older people not only tend to be less confident in the things that they do, but they are also much more susceptible to being influenced by others who may not have the best intentions. Therefore, it is not uncommon for there to be numerous documents floating around. This can, in turn, create tangled webs in estate planning, especially with regard to numerous persons coming forward as designated fiduciary agents, which can quickly drive up legal fees and deplete the estate.
Whether one has millions or just a few assets, it is important to plan: plan for long-term care, plan for incapacitation, and plan for estate distribution. Unfortunately, Lee and Joanie mistakenly believed that Lee would be the first to pass away, leaving Joanie to handle the business and Lee’s estate. But as we know, this was not the case; thus, there was no plan if Joanie died first.
Beyond having lost our beloved Stan Lee, the saddest part may be that the two had decades to plan; both were in their nineties.
In the end, it turns out that the superhero-creator needed a superhero himself.