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A Pacifica attorney could lose her license to practice law after she secretly married an elderly, terminally ill client and misappropriated his savings after his death, according to the State Bar of California. Attorney Linda Lowney obtained a confidential marriage license to marry her client, Thor Tollefsen, who was suffering from emphysema and terminal cancer, in 2006, by filing a falsified document, according to an opinion issued Thursday by state Bar Court Judge Catherine C. Purcell,
writing for a three-judge review panel.
Lowney then misappropriated funds for which Tollefsen had clearly designated his nieces as beneficiaries, according to the opinion. Lowney was recommended for disbarment by a state Bar Court hearing judge in March 2011. She filed an appeal, arguing that a one-year suspension would be more appropriate given that she had practiced for 32 years without discipline. But in her opinion Purcell said the disbarment, which is now pending a decision by the California Supreme Court, is warranted given the serious nature of Lowney’s misconduct. “This case demonstrates the tragic results that happen when an attorney’s greed prevails over fiduciary responsibilities to a client,” Purcell wrote.
“Lowney’s overreaching misconduct toward Tollefsen is simply inexcusable, despite her 32 years of discipline-free practice.” Lowney became Tollefsen’s attorney in 2002 and helped him prepare a will and trust naming his sister and nieces, who lived in Norway, as heirs to his estate, which was worth between $1 million and $1.5 million, including real estate. She became romantically involved with Tollefsen around August 2005, when Tollefsen was 85 and she was 54. She promised to take care of him and persuaded him to sign over more than $300,000 in funds held at Franklin Templeton to her for use in his care. They were married in January 2006 by a confidential marriage license, and at Lowney’s direction they falsely stated that they had been living together, according to Purcell’s opinion.
By fall of 2006, however, Tollefsen was complaining to his family that he could not reach Lowney and that she was not taking care of him. He moved into a senior care facility in January 2007. Later that same month, Lowney brought Tollefsen to his home for a weekend. When he appeared ill the following day she called an ambulance and followed him to the hospital, but did not stay. Tollefsen died the next day, alone at the hospital. When his family learned of his death through a neighbor, his nieces traveled to the United States to take care of his estate, and learned that Lowney had cremated their uncle against his express wishes and taken financial documents from his house, Purcell wrote.
A four-year legal battle followed, in which Lowney moved Tollefsen’s funds into her own accounts and sought to have his nieces removed as co-trustees to his estate, Purcell noted. Tollefsen’s family successfully sought to have the marriage declared void, but spent more than $600,000 in legal fees during the fight, and received only $500,000 in a settlement, Purcell noted.
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