By Lou Ann Anderson
People believe they have the right to determine their final asset distribution. The legal industry perpetually promotes proper estate planning as a vehicle to ensure wishes are honored. Greed and self-interest, however, can derail even the most well-prepared of plans and today’s probate system is increasingly home to such actions. The estate of Josephine Smoron, an elderly Connecticut woman with expressly clear wishes, exposes the harsh realities of American property rights and rights of inheritance.
Josephine Smoron believed estate planning documents would ensure her longtime caretaker Sam Manzo’s inheritance of Smoron’s 80-acre farm and cows valued at more than $1 million. Recognizing local interest in developing her property, Smoron was adamant that churches previously involved in a dispute over her brother’s estate have no claim to her estate. These wishes were clearly expressed in a 1996 will and an updated 2004 version.
As Smoron’s health deteriorated, Manzo was replaced as her conservator by a court-appointed conservator under the orders of Southington Probate Judge Bryan F. Meccariello. Before Smoron’s June 2009 death at age 92, Meccariello approved a change in her will designating all property be given to three area Catholic churches. Manzo was disinherited and there appeared no evidence this change reflected Smoron’s wishes.
A purchase agreement with local developer Carl Verderame promptly surfaced and plans for Smoron’s farm becoming home to an $18 million indoor sports complex generating $200,000 of new tax revenue were announced. Manzo filed a complaint with Connecticut’s Council on Probate Judicial Conduct that resulted in Meccariello being “censured” for the second time in three years causing the judge to withdraw his bid for re-election.
An attorney for Verderame says the land sales contract is still valid while Sam Manzo, the rightful heir, is suing to overturn Meccariello’s disregard of Smoron’s estate plan and diversion of her assets. Manzo may regain control of the property to which he is legitimately entitled, but this hijacking will cost him money and time that will never be recovered.
Smoron took responsible steps to document her final wishes. Not only did she specify that she wanted Manzo to have her property, but she also specified – evidently due to the dispute over her brother’s estate – “all churches in previous wills are intentionally, not inadvertently, omitted.”
The probate system theoretically charged with ensuring the execution of those wishes instead undermined the elderly woman’s estate planning efforts both during her last years of life and posthumously. The stunning course of events related to the Smoron estate should serve as a warning to all Americans.
Courts are indeed about laws and rules, but their application often is tailored to benefit the courts themselves and their legal industry allies. Meccariello changing Smoron’s will is one such example. Though Manzo and other distant Smoron relatives were named in the previous will and had been notified of other previous proceedings, Meccariello did not provide those named parties notice of the hearing which disinherited Manzo upon authorizing creation of the new trusts designating Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in New Britain, Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in New Britain and Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Southington as Smoron’s beneficiaries.
The May 12, 2009, hearing was based upon an application by John T. Nugent, Smoron’s court-appointed conservator and a deacon at one of the churches named as a trust beneficiary. Meccariello was the only other party at the hearing. The Bristol Press later reported that Valerie DePaolo, Smoron’s court-appointed attorney, said she arrived at the hearing late, found it was already over and never followed up to see what had happened.
Nugent was appointed by Meccariello in January 2008 to replaced Manzo as Smoron’s conservator. He moved her to a nursing home, but, per The Press, didn’t visit her because she was suffering from dementia. By September 2008, Nugent reportedly negotiated a contract to sell Smoron’s farm for $2 million though it was later reduced to $1.5 million.
Based on a complaint filed by Sam Manzo, the Council On Probate Judicial Conduct censured Meccariello in September 2010. “There is no justifiable reason why a judge of probate, knowing of a pre-existing will which documents the ward’s testamentary intent, should approve the creation of a trust that vitiates the purpose and language of the will,” the council said in its decision. This was Meccariello’s second admonishment by the council in three years. The judge fortunately withdrew his bid for re-election days after the censure.
The three churches have declined their interests in Smoron’s estate as the case has become so public. Their position is understandable – grave robbing is most desirably accomplished in private or else via a public guise of entitlement, respectability or morality. This effort only laughingly falls into any of those categories.
December 2010 brought several notable developments including an investigative panel for the Statewide Grievance Committee finding probable cause that attorney John T. Nugent engaged in unprofessional conduct while handling the estate of Josephine Smoron. Disbarment is hopefully an option as that process moves forward. In that same timeframe, Verderame filed a lawsuit against Nugent and others citing their failure to release the Smoron land for construction of the $18 million sports complex.
This cast of corrupt characters only grows as Nugent’s attorney, Jacek Smigelski, was recently suspended with regard to his owing nearly $300,000 in interest, penalties and fees in connection with another probate case in which he overcharged clients.
Sam Manzo continues working through the legal system to find resolution in a situation that occurred thanks to greed and a corrupt legal system. Recent indications suggest that progress toward resolution is underway. That would be welcomed news!
While agreed that people with all levels of assets should engage in estate planning, it’s also important to note that probate instruments (wills, trusts, guardianships, powers of attorney) are not the ultimate safeguards as promoted by the legal industry. Probate abuse is happening with growing frequency impacting estates of all sizes in all areas.
Beware and be aware! Start watching what’s happening in your backyard. Probate realities don’t necessarily equate with inheritance or other property rights – in Connecticut or anywhere else.
Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.