Navigating Non-Relative Inheritance
How to avoid elder exploitation and other inheritance headaches
From romance to riches to rags may well sum up one of the state’s most notorious disputes. What began as an inheritance quibble ended up, in the words of a prominent attorney, as a “public corruption case.” A Portsmouth police sergeant was left $2 million from an elderly woman he befriended, only to have the bequeathal reversed. On top of that, he was then fired along with his supervisor. The case stands as a cautionary, disturbing tale — and it’s also a legal convergence of elder exploitation, estate planning and public integrity.
The three-year saga dealt with whether Geraldine Webber, a 93-year-old Portsmouth woman, had the mental capacity to change her will to bequeath most of her estate to Aaron Goodwin, a young man whom the court eventually determined to have used undue influence while the police force and Webber’s attorney seemed to have looked the other way.
Webber was a wealthy and eccentric woman. Court documents describe her as “outspoken, unfiltered and funny.” She outlived her first husband and was divorced from her second one. Her only son died, leaving her with a disabled grandson as her only heir. At the time when she met Goodwin, Webber was a perfect candidate for financial exploitation — wealthy, lonely and diagnosed with dementia. Her bank was so concerned that they contacted the state Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services to investigate. A state mental health worker confirmed what Webber’s longtime doctor, attorney, landscaper and other acquaintances had noticed: a rapid deterioration of her mental faculties. The state report noted that Webber “deserves even more combined scrutiny of the protection of her person as well as her estate.”
But she didn’t get it. Instead, in Webber’s mind, she got a lover sent from heaven above who then, perhaps, conspired to make her fortune his own. It all began in October 2010, when she met Goodwin while he was investigating suspicious activity in her waterfront neighborhood. Goodwin quickly became a frequent visitor to Webber’s home and her trusted companion and advisor. Goodwin said the relationship was maternal, but Webber had a different view. Compromised by dementia — as the court records indicate — she was “perhaps even smitten” with the sergeant, as evident in sexualized diary entries in which she implied that “he was her ‘love’ sent by God to protect her from outside threats.”
Within a month, Webber informed her longtime attorney (and executor) of her desire to rewrite her will so she could leave everything to Goodwin. Shortly thereafter, Webber became suspicious of her lawyer — a man whose practices, unrelated to the disputed will, the court had “grave concerns” about — and fired him. In the height of irony, though, it was Goodwin’s own department that investigated the attorney, all while one of their own was in line to become the major beneficiary of his ex-client’s estate. Through it all, the Portsmouth Police Department seemed indifferent to the potential exploitation of Webber; in one email, a fellow cop even ribbed Goodwin about his immense good fortune.
With Webber’s former lawyer pushed aside, Goodwin began looking for a new lawyer of his own. The first one declined after meeting with Webber. In communicating with her doctor and researching her claims, the attorney concluded that Webber “was not competent” and suggested a court determination.
Goodwin pushed on until he finally procured an attorney seemingly more willing to ignore the basic legal theories of testament capacity and undue influence. Testament capacity sets forth a requirement of a “sound mind and memory,” ensuring someone is legally capable of understanding the nature of the assets, their natural relations and the disposition of the assets; undue influence deals with inequity of power or, simply put, the act of taking advantage of someone. In the end, the will was challenged and the case twisted through the legal process until it was eventually ruled to be invalid. The case embarrassed the local police department and led to resignations. The attorney who wrote the will is being sued for malpractice.
Manchester Attorney Sarah Ambrogi, past chair of the New Hampshire Bar Association’s elder law, estate planning and probate section, says the case illustrates the growing trend of elder exploitation.“Elder law is a parallel craft to estate planning,” she says, and attorneys need to be attentive to the process and impact of aging, ask probing questions and, when in doubt, seek expert medical guidance. “On the issue of capacity,” she adds, “you must be extremely careful. Your antenna must be up all the time — especially if you cut out children [or natural heirs].”
Nearly all inheritances flow to family members or favorite charities. When an unrelated person becomes the beneficiary of such largesse, it’s bound to raise questions and even suspicion from those who felt a right to the inheritance. The question is how to balance the wishes of the testators — the name given to the will’s author — to distribute their assets as they see fit with the right of the bequeathed — the beneficiary of the will — to accept it in a way that doesn’t create an inherent conflict of interest or is violate the essential trust.
Ambrogi, who also serves on the Manchester School Board, says governments and public institutions need to have clear ethical guidelines for accepting gifts. Sergeant Goodwin “should have refused the gift to protect himself,” she says, or at least chosen to “resign and accept.” But there is something deeper here beyond the letter of the law. As Alyssa Graham, a Bedford estate planning and probate lawyer, says, this is about “care for elderly people who are losing capacity. They deserve dignity and the right to leave their [assets] where they want without being taken advantage of.”
“The great majority of New Hampshire residents wish to age in place,” says Todd Fahey, attorney and current state director of AARP New Hampshire. “It is critical that we equip our seniors — and those living with them in their communities — with knowledge to spot and to avoid the many varieties of fraud targeted to older residents.”
The key, he says, is understanding and respecting the spectrum and meaning of caregiving. “We must promote public policies and enact laws that let all aging Granite Staters live with peace and dignity in their communities with the knowledge that not only are their laws on their side,” he adds, “but their caregivers and all members of the community as well.”