In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” The need to get good legal advice certainly applies to someone involved in complex estate litigation who is alleged to have financially mistreated both his father and his sister – after getting out of prison.

That’s one takeaway from a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal (Keading v. Keading).

The appellate decision dealt with a trio of lawsuits between Kenton Keading and his sister Hilja Keading that had been filed in Contra Costa County.
Their parents, Lucille and Lewis Keading, had died a few months apart – Lucille in late 2015, and Lewis in January of 2016. Decades earlier they had created a family trust leaving their major asset, the family home in El Sobrante, to both children.

The parents had also given Kenton $75,000 some years before they died, to help him after he served nine years in prison for felony convictions. They didn’t give financial support to Hilja because, according to court documents, they had not accepted her sexual orientation.

Those feelings moderated, and in 2011 the parents amended the trust to make Hilja the beneficiary of some investments and any remainder of the trust.
By late 2014 their relationship with Hilja had improved further. Nonetheless, early in 2015 they granted Kenton power of attorney.

Lucille was diagnosed with a brain tumor in June of that year, and died in September. Lewis’s health quickly deteriorated, and he required kidney dialysis and in-home care. Both Hilja and Kenton stayed with him and oversaw his care.

Lewis’s attitude toward his daughter softened, and in September of 2015 he designated Hilja as his attorney-in-fact. With the help of an estate planning attorney he amended his trust to equalize the assets that would go to his children after his death.

Although ill, Lewis “was very sharp” and “knew exactly what he was doing” when he signed the amendment, the attorney later testified.

In December of 2015, while Hilja was away from the home, Kenton found an email she had sent to an attorney friend asking for a referral to a “bad-ass, take-no-prisoner” lawyer to pursue Kenton for financial elder abuse of their parents.

Kenton showed the email to his father who, according to Kenton, decided to change his estate. Kenton took Lewis to a UPS store where Lewis signed a document designating Kenton rather than Hilja as his attorney-in-fact.

A week later, Lewis executed a declaration written by Kenton stating he was not the victim of elder abuse. At trial, Kenon said he asked Lewis to sign the document because he feared his sister would try to send him back to jail on charges of elder abuse.

Days later, around Christmas of 2015, Lewis decided to stop dialysis.

On December 30, acting under his newly conferred power of attorney, Kenton executed a deed transferring the family home out of the trust to himself and Lewis as joint tenants with right of survivorship; he would be the sole owner after Lewis, already quite ill, died. He did not inform Hilja of the transfer.

On January 1 of 2016, more than a week after he had stopped dialysis, Lewis signed a document transferring to Kenton nearly 100,000 shares of a long-held stock.

A family friend helping care for Lewis said he was very sick, could not raise his head, and barely had the strength to sign the document – the contents of which Kenton had covered with a sheet of paper.

The next day, acting under his power of attorney, Kenton amended to trust to remove Hilja as successor trustee.

Lewis died on January 4, 2016.

In February Kenton rented out the home, and sold Lewis’ car for $8,500, which he kept. He then went on a trip abroad.

On March 16, after discovering that her brother had transferred the family home to himself, Hilja sued Kenton. She asked the court to remove him as trustee, set aside the transfer of the home, recover other assets Kenton has transferred to himself, and hold him liable for elder abuse, fraud, conversion, and other alleged acts.

The trial court suspended Kenton as trustee the same day, replacing him with a professional trustee.

The dispute expanded into three related lawsuits. In some phases of the litigation Kenton was represented by an attorney, while in others he appeared “in pro per,” short for the Latin phrase “in propria persona,” meaning on his own behalf, without a lawyer.

In September of 2017, the court ruled against Kenton and ordered him to pay damages – doubled to a total of over $1.5 million because of a finding that he had committed financial elder abuse of his father. He also did not fare well in the other related lawsuits.

He appealed, and when the three consolidated cases reached the appellate court, Kenton represented himself.

The appellate justices, in a ruling that inventoried Kenton’s actions in detail, affirmed the lower court’s decision that his behavior amounted to financial elder abuse. It dismissed his other claims, and awarded Hilja her costs on appeal.

An attorney might not have achieved a better outcome for Kenton on appeal, but if he had obtained legal advice early on, rather than taking a do-it-yourself approach, he might have avoided incurring a $1.5 million judgment. A prudent lawyer would have also advised him to settle the case rather than proceeding to trial when there was no plausible justification for his abuse of the power of attorney.

By Lynda I. Chung