Probate dealings make an inheritance go awry

In Cautionary Tales by Long

When David and Katie Swanson saw a “For Sale” sign outside the Fort Worth duplex they expected to inherit, they knew they had a problem. They called the phone number on the sign and talked to a man who said he was the new owner.How could that be? The Galvez Avenue property was part of the estate of the late Ben Collier, a World War I veteran who died at age 105 in 2001. His last will and testament awarded the property to David Swanson, his nephew-in-law.

The new owner said he purchased the property from the executor of Collier’s estate. He had fixed it up and was looking to sell for a profit.

When the Swansons later learned the rest of the story, their surprise turned to anger.

Jerry Weinstein, lawyer for the executor of Collier’s estate, had arranged for the duplex to be sold to pay back taxes on the estate. The buyer was an investor who was also one of Weinstein’s clients.

The Swansons’ lawyer, W. Bernard Whitney, researched the matter and came to believe that Weinstein had a conflict of interest in the sale.

“My allegation is that he sold it to a friend at less than a fair sale,” Whitney told me. He filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Swansons in Tarrant County Probate Court alleging that Weinstein defrauded them of their property.

The case is an example of the complexities often found in probate court, when wills and property to be distributed to beneficiaries sometimes fall into dispute. It takes vigilance to protect your rights.

Weinstein told me he had done nothing wrong: “In this case, I ask myself over and over again if I have a conflict of interest,” he said. The answer, he said, is always no.

Troubled past

Ben Collier, who was one of the oldest living World War I veterans, liked to ride in the Fort Worth Veterans Day parade.

Collier was also known as the oldest person ever sent to the Tarrant County Jail. He was 103 years old when he shot his grandson several times after the younger man complained of conditions in a house that he lived in and that Collier owned. The grandson survived. Collier was never charged because the shooting was considered self-defense. After his release, he went to live with David Swanson.

Weinstein, who now works out of his one-man Weinstein Law Firm and Will Center in west Fort Worth, also has a tumultuous history. The lawyer was disbarred for five years in the late 1990s after pleading guilty to arson in federal court and being sentenced to five years’ probation.

Here’s what happened. He had told police that when he went to his family’s landmark store, Weinstein’s South Side Hardware on Magnolia Avenue, in the middle of the night, checking on a robbery report, he was attacked by two men who stabbed him and set fire to the store.

Later, police learned that Weinstein had staged the attack and burned his family’s business.

Today, Weinstein explains that he suffers from bipolar disorder. He had taken Halcion, a drug now known to cause violent reactions, and had also undergone electric shock therapy.

“I’m not proud of what happened, but it was just a matter of being ill,” he told me.

‘On the edge’

After Weinstein completed probation and returned to his law practice, he prepared Collier’s will.

Then, after Collier died, Weinstein was hired by the executor for Collier’s estate, Dorothy Mitchell.

Weinstein told me that Mitchell believed that the duplex had to be sold to pay Collier’s back taxes. So he recommended three possible buyers. One was Wayne Steed, a Fort Worth land investor for whom Weinstein said he had served as attorney.

Weinstein told me he disclosed the attorney-client relationship to Mitchell, following rules that lawyers disclose potential conflicts.

Steed paid $22,000 for the duplex, which lawyer Whitney told me was never appraised before the sale.

Weinstein explained: “I didn’t have anything to do with negotiations with the price. That was between him [Steed] and Miss Mitchell.”

“The point I want to make,” Weinstein continued, “is I didn’t make any decisions for Dorothy. She told me what to do.”

Mitchell testified in a deposition for the lawsuit that she knew nothing about legal matters and depended on Weinstein for advice and direction. She declined to be interviewed, but she testified that it was Weinstein who came up with the price for the sale.

After Steed bought the duplex and spent nearly $30,000 to fix it up, Weinstein handled its resale for him, according to land records and testimony. Steed sold it for $76,000.

Bob Gammage, a former Texas State Supreme Court justice and ethics expert, told me that in evaluating whether there was a potential conflict of interest, he might ask whether the estate lawyer and the executor tried to get “the best possible deal” for the estate. “I think you’re on the edge” of the appearance of a conflict, Gammage said.

Weinstein “may have done the best he could do under the circumstances and fulfilled his duties to the Collier estate and to the executor,” Gammage said, but that may depend on whether Mitchell was thoroughly informed and whether Weinstein shopped for the best deal.

The lawsuit was eventually settled in mediation. Weinstein and Steed agreed to pay David Swanson $10,000 each.

“I did not admit doing anything wrong,” Weinstein told me.

Swanson told me, “I took a beating. I didn’t get what the property was worth, but I’m tired of fighting.”

News researcher Marcia Melton contributed to this report.