The Tragic Case of Peter Knoll: What Legal Steps Could Have Prevented His Death?

This morning, I was reading the newspaper– on my smartphone– when a headline grabbed my attention: “Battle Erupts Over Estate of Wealthy Recluse Who Froze to Death Inside his Upper East Side Mansion (you can read the article here http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-metro-battle-estate-upper-east-side-man-20180722-story.html).

Reading this article led me to another one published on April 23, 2018, a number of months after his death that winter (read here: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/manhattan/hypothermia-kills-75-year-old-man-upper-east-side-townhouse-article-1.3949019).

Peter Knoll, a 75 year old Manhattanite and son of a furniture magnate,  froze to death in his apartment.  Con Edison had shut off his utilities in 2014. However and very unfortunately,  they failed to notify the proper adult protective and other city authorities so Mr. Knoll suffered in silence until his death. His close circle of family and friends evidently knew he had no heat in his home, but…nothing was ever said by anyone (as far as we know).

Publicly, there is not a lot known about his life in those last years. There is a brief mention of physical ailments, but the public record is largely silent on whether or not he suffered from any condition that cognitively or psychologically impaired him. My suspicion is that Mr. Knoll was not in his right frame of mind.  And I have some thoughts on that, but before I get to that…

In my professional experience, older people who live alone are often isolated-particularly if they live in a private residence–unless they have involved family or friends to supervise or otherwise “check in” on them.  This is why many older people and their loved ones, opt to have them reside in 1) senior living communities or 2) an assisted living residence. A third option, if finances permit, is to hire professional live in help. If problems arise, they will become known sooner.

It is shocking and tragic that a man of Mr. Knoll’s immense financial  resources would have been left to suffer alone. He had enough assets to not only live comfortably the rest of his days but to have others attend to his every need- without him ever having to leave his home, or ever becoming impoverished as a result.

The solution to this inevitable tragedy? Properly executed “Advance Directives,” individually known as a Health Proxy (for medical decisions) and a Power of Attorney (for everything non-medical). These documents are in effect during a period of incapacity. If these documents were never executed,  then the option would be an Article 81 Proceeding a.k.a. Adult Guardianship

I have been involved in Article 81 proceedings for a number of years and have worn every hat imaginable: 1. Petitioner’s Counsel, 2) Court Evaluator (the Judges’ “eyes and ears,”), 3) Counsel for the Alleged Incapacitated Person (AIP) and 4) Permanent Guardian.  Briefly, this proceeding is filed in Supreme Court (a trial court)  to request from the “Court” (the Judge) that a Guardian be appointed to care for the personal needs and property management of an “Alleged Incapacitated Person.” Yes, there is a hearing. Sometimes they are uncontested, other times they are quite contested. The AIP can consent, but sometimes they do not and then there are those who cannot.

In the end, the Judge determines if the person is incapacitated and how this incapacity could further harm them without the appointment of a Guardian.

Based on the brewing estate “battle” and the allegations by one of Mr. Knoll’s adult sons that others took advantage of his father’s “frail physical and mental state,” it seems it was known, at least by some, that Mr. Knoll was not well.

So why did nothing happen? I have absolutely no idea.  And if I were to put forth theories, this blog post would become even longer and I would become even more incensed.

My biggest takeaways from his story:

  1. Even all the money in the world cannot protect you, when people choose to remain silent.
  2. Watch over older people you know, in your family and community.  It really is our responsibility.
  3.  In Spanish there is a saying, “Hoy por ti, mañana por mi” which means “Today for you, tomorrow for me.” Treat others how you would want to be treated. Getting to old age is a privilege and it should happen with dignity.

 

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