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For legal drama, probate court is the place to be

Most trial lawyers regard probate courts as humdrum backwaters. They assume serious litigation and gripping courtroom drama are the province of civil state and federal trial courts. Not so fast. Probate courts are specialized courts that deal with life-changing issues, such as elder abuse, competency to handle one’s affairs and the imposition of involuntary conservatorships (often controlled by greedy fiduciaries), undue influence, forgery, fraud, testamentary capacity in will and trust contests, and profound end-of-life decisions. Most cases usually trace back to greed, following a long and winding road replete with sophisticated predators, distraught clients, and cutthroat legal warriors. There is a lot on the line in probate contests and one thing is certain — they are anything but dull.

Probate trials, particularly in contested will and conservatorship matters, fall into a predictable pattern of filial blood fights for physical assets and control of future income. Take the highly publicized Brooke Astor case. Her enormous wealth and coveted status among Manhattan’s elite could not protect her from her son and conservator, who looted millions upon millions from his own mother as she faded into frailty and dementia. The Astor case morphed into a criminal prosecution and a conviction, which is not unusual in elder abuse probate cases. Eventually, her son was charged with inducing his Alzheimer-afflicted mother to amend her will to leave the proceeds to him rather than her chosen charities.

From Madison Avenue elites to common farmers, end-of-life family theft repeats itself with depressing consistency at every economic strata. Our probate courts are teeming with civil will contests and conservatorship cases. Common probate court cases include claims against fiduciaries who manipulated vulnerable parents into changing their will, who stole from family charities, and who disinherited relatives in fiduciary schemes.

Jarmoc v. Jarmoc The case of Jarmoc v. Jarmoc, decided by the Enfield probate court, is one of my many experiences with this phenomenon. This case centered on Edwin Jarmoc, a Trinity College engineering professor, self-made tobacco farmer, and legend among central Connecticut’s river valley tobacco-growers. In the last years of his life, Edwin developed Alzheimer’s. As the disease progressed, so did the sway of his son, Stephen Jarmoc, an ambitious MBA-educated farmer and state representative who had champagne tastes with a beer budget.

A few years before his death, Edwin’s daughter Laura, a farmgirl-cum-physician, became concerned about her brother’s control over their father’s finances. Sadly, her suspicions were confirmed after Edwin died, with his estate drowning in millions of dollars in debt. To the Enfield farming community who respected Edwin’s reputation for frugality, this was incomprehensible.

Over the next two years, my law firm spent hundreds of hours unraveling Stephen’s elaborate schemes. We subpoenaed thousands of financial and legal documents, collected testimony from bank witnesses, and exposed shell corporations and deceptive banking transactions. The picture we pieced together was not pretty, revealing how Stephen strategically kept information from his declining father in order to gradually convert assets to himself. In one pernicious deal, Stephen used Edwin’s equity as collateral to purchase hundreds of acres of tobacco land but failed to disclose that Edwin got only the debt and no title to the land. At the property closing, Stephen and the bank officials made sure to have a team of experienced attorneys. Edwin had none.

We used a “constructive trust” argument on behalf of Laura Jarmoc to successfully return the estate’s stolen monies and claim her rightful inheritance. This somewhat obscure legal theory has roots in old English law and permits a judge to act as an equitable arbiter and take control of property that belongs to a wrongfully deprived estate.

Stephen Jarmoc’s legal team strenuously opposed our constructive trust claim in a trial that became the longest proceeding in that court’s modern history. We called numerous witnesses to establish her brother’s fraud. A forensic accountant testified to Stephen Jarmoc’s elaborate financial machinations. And a neuropsychologist confirmed Edwin’s diminished mental and physical capacity during critical financial deals with his son, including at the time he signed his new will with a formal diagnosis shortly after.

The court’s decision references a local agricultural bank, which teamed up with Jarmoc to defraud Edwin. A central villain in the saga, the bank funded Stephen and Karen Jarmoc’s lavish lifestyle and personal loans for years. Working side-by-side, they used Edwin’s collateral to buy millions of dollars of farmland in Stephen’s name. In exchange, Edwin carried the mortgages, but received no land title. Edwin was duped into thinking “his” farmland was held by a protective holding company, in which he actually had no ownership.

In this scheme, Stephen became more and more indebted to the bank, and the bank took more and more of Edwin’s assets as collateral. All the while, Edwin devolved into full-blown Alzheimer’s. After the court ordered Stephen to disclose Edwin’s medical records, we learned that Edwin was diagnosed with dementia during these crucial transactions. In the dozens of financial dealings that we uncovered, we also learned that Stephen and his bank met with Edwin only once for less than half an hour. Though Edwin never had an attorney present, his signature was on hundreds of documents that he could not understand.

Every trial lawyer knows the success of a plaintiff’s case rises and falls on two factors: testimony from a fully believable and sympathetic plaintiff, and a cross examination of the defendant that inflicts a mortal wound. As pointed out by the great trial lawyer Gerry Spence, the jury requires and tolerates the destruction of only one central witness. Laura Jarmoc was a plaintiff from central casting. A self-made professional woman, dedicated mother, and prominent physician, she spoke movingly of her beloved father, an idyllic childhood, and her horror as she learned of how her brother gradually deprived their father of his property and dignity. Our cross-examination of Stephen extended over a day, shining a light on a belligerent, evasive witness who gave testimony inconsistent with his own prior statements of as well as other fact and expert witnesses. Astonishingly, he willingly admitted prior financial transactions previously unknown to us, including tobacco transactions in the Dominican Republic. At the conclusion of his testimony, the case was essentially won.

The court found in favor of Laura Jarmoc on all counts. In a scorching opinion, the Judge found Stephen Jarmoc guilty of massive fraud against his father. He tricked Edwin into believing that he owned the land he purchased with his own monies instead of the truth: he drained his life savings and owned nothing. The Court authorized the new executor of the estate to seize Stephen’s businesses, personal assets, and invalidate all mortgages issued since Edwin’s death.

Jarmoc is a classic case of elder fraud and predatory lending. There are many lessons here. But the essential one is to watch out for the most vulnerable among us— the elderly. As we learn from Astor and Jarmoc, money cannot shield the vulnerable from predators, even and perhaps especially when they are family members driven by unchecked greed.