Under the probate laws of California and every other state, if a person fails to make an estate plan or leave a last will and testament, his or her estate will automatically pass to the next-of-kin, as defined in law. That may lead you to think of estate planning as unnecessary. After all, why bother when I would just leave my estate to my next-of-kin anyways? Unfortunately, there are cases where unscrupulous individuals take it upon themselves to “plan” your estate without your knowledge or consent.
IRS, U.S. Attorney Pursue Ohio Properties Recently, prosecutors in Ohio and Pennsylvania uncovered evidence of forged wills and other estate planning documents used to steal the estates of wealthy decedents. The Ohio case involves the estate of the late Martin Fewlas, a Toledo real estate investor who died leaving more than $2.2 million in assets. Fewlas died in 2010 while residing in one half of a Toledo duplex that he owned. The other half was rented by Margaret McKnight; her boyfriend, Kurt Mallory; and his father, Gary Mallory.
In September 2010, McKnight filed Fewlas’s purported last will and testament, which named her as the executor and sole beneficiary of the estate. Both Mallorys were listed as witnesses. Although Fewlas was a widower at the time of his death, court records identified at least three living relatives who would have inherited the estate absent a valid will. Nevertheless, the Lucas County Probate Court admitted the will and declared the estate closed in 2012.
In April of this year, Gary Mallory told the Internal Revenue Service that the Fewlas will was, in fact, a forgery. He said McKnight and his son drew up the will about a week after Fewlas died and that he personally forged the dead man’s signature. The IRS later conducted its own forensic examination of the will and concurred that Fewlas’s signature had been forged.
On April 26, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio filed civil forfeiture proceedings against four properties, including the duplex, purchased or inherited by McKnight from the proceeds of the Fewlas estate. A separate criminal investigation remains pending. According to the forfeiture petition, McKnight has fraudulently transferred over $2 million in assets from the Fewlas estate to her personal accounts.
Pittsburgh-area Woman Accused of Stealing Neighbor’s House A similar story is unfolding in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. On August 2, police arrested Mary Mechelli on charges that she forged the last will and testament of her deceased neighbor, Margaret Dorn. According to the Allegheny County District Attorney, Mechelli forged a number of estate planning documents while Dorn was hospitalized for several weeks prior to her death in May 2010. Mechelli allegedly forged $3,800 in checks from Dorn’s account before her death, obtained a life insurance policy on Dorn, and assumed ownership of Dorn’s house after her death. A notary public later testified before a grand jury that she did not properly witness the signatures on Dorn’s alleged will and other estate planning documents.
It’s important to remember that neither Mary Mechelli nor Margaret McKnight have been convicted of any crime and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But these stories should serve as a potent reminder that estate planning is not something to be taken lightly. It’s up to you to take charge of your assets and make sure your wishes are carried out after your death. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions or concerns.