Buttiglieri and Zawideh Successful in $4.2 Million Settlement Over Will Dispute
Kemp Klein Attorneys Joseph P. Buttiglieri and Robert S. Zawideh successfully represented the the plaintiffs in a case in which they were disinherited. This was a complex will contest involving a solitary man who died with no wife or children. The decedent never owned real estate, a car, a phone or a computer. He had no recent relationship with his two nieces, who were his only heirs.
When he died, his estate was worth approximately $21,000,000. Three years before he died, the decedent became a ward of the court. At the time, everyone, including decedent, believed he did not have a will. During the course of the guardianship and conservatorship, the decedent told a psychiatrist that he did not have or want a will and repeated this in two independent psychological exams. Before the wardship, he said as much to his financial advisors. Both psychologists reported that decedent had testamentary capacity. The conservator informed the court of his belief that there was no estate plan, and whoever was in charge would have to make sure the ward had one whether he wanted one or not.
The court appointed an attorney to assist the ward in preparing an estate plan. From 2018 to 2020, the court-appointed attorney drafted multiple wills, three of which were signed, all with varying dispositions of his property, and all of which expressly disinherited his heirs. One of the wills left two recently hired caregivers over $5 million each. The last will left his entire estate to several charities with which the decedent never had a relationship. After he died, the nieces objected to the probate of the last known, proffered will, arguing that he died intestate.
Thereafter, another charity came forward with a nonholographic unwitnessed document they claimed to be a will. Due to the numerous wills executed by the decedent, a significant concern was the issue of dependent relative revocation, which could have resulted in a separate jury trial over each individual will.
After hotly contested litigation, all the parties agreed to a 60/40 split of the estate, with the 40% group (who weren’t in the final will), arbitrating their claims to the balance of the 40%. After several days of arbitration, the 40% group asked the arbitrator to act as a mediator, at which point the case settled, with a substantial award for the disinherited nieces.
Zawideh Defends Widow’s Inheritance
The decedent was a widower with no children of his own. From 2007 – 2011, using his own attorney, decedent created his estate plan and amended it several times. Initially, following the death of decedent and his wife, decedent left 50% of decedent’s assets to Plaintiff, with the other 50% to Defendant and his father. Two years later, decedent reduced Plaintiff’s share to 1/3, with Defendant and his father each receiving 1/3 of the trust. After moving into a nursing home, Plaintiff visited decedent less even though his business was across the street. Defendant and his family continued to regularly visit with the decedent at least twice a week. Thereafter, decedent removed Plaintiff completely from his estate plan. This occurred on 3 different days, in 6 different documents over a 20-month period.
Plaintiff accused Defendant of working with decedent’s attorney to remove Plaintiff from the estate plan. Plaintiff’s evidence of this was the fact that decedent’s attorney rented space from Defendant and his father one day a week and periodically shared a receptionist/legal assistant. Plaintiff also established a presumption of undue influence at trial, i.e., that Defendant had a confidential or fiduciary relationship with decedent, that he had an opportunity to influence the decedent, and that he benefited from the changes to the estate plan.
The Court, however, found that Defendant rebutted the presumption. Every witness testified decedent was strong-willed, even feisty, and made his own decisions. This was borne out in an audio recording where decedent clearly stated he took good care of Plaintiff and his family and that Defendant and his family had done far more for the decedent. The Court further found no evidence that Defendant was “guiding” decedent’s attorney “behind the scenes”. That lack of evidence regarding the connection between decedent’s attorney and Defendant was significant in light of all the other testimony presented.
The Court also noted that an important indicator of undue influence is whether the testator or grantor had been isolated from family and friends since isolation from other formerly trusted people could indicate an attempt to assert control over the victim. In this case, multiple witnesses testified that Defendant never discouraged or prevented decedent from contacting anyone, even Plaintiff or his family. Defendant took decedent to the Plaintiff’s restaurant and did not restrict or attempt to restrict visits by anyone to decedent when he lived in the nursing home. Nor was there any testimony that Defendant disparaged Plaintiff to the decedent.
According to the Court, there was no evidence that Defendant even attempted to isolate or control his relationship with the decedent. Further, Plaintiff never contradicted the evidence that decedent and Defendant were close. In fact, there was ample uncontradicted testimony that decedent thought of Defendant as a son.
For all these reasons, the Court found that Petitioner failed to carry the burden of demonstrating undue influence on the decedent by Respondent and therefore dismissed his claim.
Zawideh Defends Widow’s Inheritance
Petitioner, Mr. Zawideh’s client, married her late husband (“the decedent”) in November 2002, after a two-year engagement during which they lived in different states. Two days before their wedding in Michigan, her then fiancé picked up the Petitioner from the airport and told her for the first time that his aunt, the matriarch of his family, who employed decedent and controlled his finances, wanted decedent and petitioner to sign a prenuptial agreement that would leave Petitioner with nothing in the event of the decedent’s death. The alternative was that the aunt would not allow them to get married. This demand put Mr. Zawideh’s client under tremendous pressure to sign the agreement. To get Petitioner to sign the prenup, decedent assured her that it was merely a formality and that it was just something to please his aunt. Given the stress of the moment, Petitioner relied on decedent’s word and signed the prenup after meeting with decedent and an attorney who represented both the decedent and his aunt. To complicate matters, decedent and petitioner signed a postnuptial agreement one year later that also left Petitioner with nothing in the event of either divorce or decedent’s death.
The aunt passed away 12 years later, leaving everything to the decedent. After the aunt’s death, decedent and Petitioner agreed that neither the prenuptial nor the postnuptial agreements would be honored or enforced. But before they took action on that agreement, decedent’s health began to dramatically deteriorate. By December of 2016, decedent was diagnosed with kidney failure and was on dialysis three times per week. In August of 2017, decedent instructed his attorney that he “wanted to take care of” both petitioner and his nephew. Unfortunately, the attorney took no action on decedent’s instructions until December of 2017, after decedent was gravely ill and admitted to the hospital. The attorney then spoke to his law partner and advised him that decedent wanted to update his estate plan and advised him about the prenuptial agreement. The partner waited until decedent was well enough to have the discussion, which he did on December 28, 2017 in decedent’s hospital room. Unfortunately, the partner did not get into specifics because the Petitioner and the nephew were present. Although he did mail to decedent at his home an estate planning template for decedent to fill out, the decedent died within the week and never made it home.
Immediately after his death, several family members, many of whom had not spoken to or seen the decedent in years came forward to – as one of them testified – “enforce [decedent]’s wishes.” Robert Zawideh aggressively attacked the circumstances of the signing of the two agreements and sought to prove that, regardless of those circumstances, the decedent and the petitioner verbally agreed to dispense with them. Significantly, there existed an approximately 15 year old deposition transcript where decedent testified to ownership of a large asset not disclosed in the prenuptial agreement. After two years of litigation, 11 depositions, extensive discovery and multiple cross motions for summary disposition, the parties agreed that, instead of receiving nothing, Petitioner will receive approximately 1/3 of her late husband’s $3.1 million dollar estate.
Rolfe and Callahan Save Client Over $800,000
A new client recently came to Kemp Klein with the intention of updating their estate plan following the passing of a spouse. However, in the process of reviewing the client’s trust accounts, attorneys Brian Rolfe and Casey Callahan discovered a technical error in the retirement account beneficiary designations made by a previous financial advisor.
The error would have required the client to cash out retirement accounts 14 years earlier than planned, which would have cost $165,000 in otherwise avoidable taxes as well as three more years of tax-deferred growth. Through detailed research and effective negotiations, Rolfe and Callahan were able to reverse the previous advisor’s error and save the client over $800,000.