Legal Lessons from Hit Podcast, S-Town – Part 2: Power of Attorney

May 3, 2017
Lindsay M. Schoeneberger

This is Part 2 of a series of posts analyzing the legal issues in the hit podcast S-Town, produced by the creators of Serial and This American Life. For more background, check out the introduction to the series. Although the events in S-Town occur in Alabama, for the purposes of this series, the legal analysis will be based on general principles of law and Pennsylvania law, since we’re Pennsylvania lawyers.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t listened to the series yet and want to avoid spoilers, proceed beyond this point with caution.

Chapter 3 picks up after the shocking end of Chapter 2, wherein the listener learns that John B. has killed himself.  It quickly becomes apparent that while John had talked about suicide for years, even keeping a lengthy suicide note on his computer, he did not plan to have his loved ones taken care of after his death.

John B. was the primary care taker for his mother, Mary Grace.  John led people to think she was suffering from some form of dementia, although an actual diagnosis is never given.  When John dies, someone had to care for Mary Grace.  There was a battle between Tyler Goodson, a younger friend and sometime employee of John and Rita and Charlie, cousins of John.  At first listen, Tyler seems to be the reasonable choice.  He knows Mary Grace well, seeing her almost daily.  He had been helping John B. around the property for years.  Tyler considered Mary Grace to be part of his family, even referring to her as Mama.  Rita and Charlie on the other hand, seem to appear out of nowhere and now want to take over Mary Grace’s care.  While the listener is given both sides of the story, it is never clear who has pure motives or who is trying to take advantage of Mary Grace. 

Immediately after John’s death, Mary Grace herself wants Tyler to take care of her.  However, the hospital determines that Mary Grace is no longer capable of making her own decisions.  Tyler is not actually family.  Rita and Charlie are relatives so Rita gains control over Mary Grace and her affairs.  The listener will never know if this outcome was best for Mary Grace.  But if it wasn’t, what could have been done differently?  How could this have been prevented?

In Pennsylvania, there are two ways this could have been handled to ensure that Mary Grace’s wishes were followed.  First, Mary Grace could have executed a power of attorney while she still had capacity.  This power of attorney could have named a successor for her son, or given her son the ability to name a successor.  We often recommend doing two powers of attorney: a durable financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney to ensure not only your finances are protected but your health care choices are also covered.  To learn more about the three basic documents everyone should have, check out my previous article on Lancaster Law Blog.

If Mary Grace did not execute a power of attorney, John could have filed a petition with the Court to have his mother declared an incapacitated person and have himself appointed guardian.  If John knew he wasn’t going to be able to continue to care for Mary Grace, he could have asked the court to appoint a successor guardian and influenced who that guardian would be.  He could have told the court who would look out for Mary Grace’s best interest, knowing the true character of Tyler, Rita, and Charlie.

In another twist, John failed to plan properly for Tyler, despite telling listeners that he wanted him to be taken care of when he died.  Stayed tuned for part 3, when I review what John could have done.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning.