By Pat Proud
“Vera told me she had no children,” Betty reminisces as she recounts her 10-year friendship with her dear 101-year-old neighbor. “No family at all. No one to care about her…no one to care for her.”
“So we believed, “ John wistfully agrees. “So we believed….
Family and friendships are important themes in the comfortable life of Betty and John. A happily married retired couple, they are both active in their local church, where Betty has sung in the choir. For years Betty has taken long walks every morning. She enjoys greeting neighbors along the way. Their modest home, located on a quiet street across from an elementary school, is filled with family photos and mementos of their daughter, two sons and grandchildren. After John’s 30-year career as an officer in the US Navy, during which the family changed addresses 30 times, the entire family is settled in Norfolk, Virginia.
Vera, on the other hand, had rarely even mentioned her family. Betty met her on one of her walks in 1994. Vera at that time described herself as a childless 90-year-old widow, who had moved to the neighborhood in 1965 and had rvcently given up her driver’s license. As helpful neighbors, Betty often took Vera to the doctor and the hairdresser, while John did handyman work around her house. Over the years, Vera became more and more dependent on her kind friends.
“She was a very spoiled lady,” Betty continues, describing Vera as 5’1”, well groomed, and always beautifully dressed. She was one of five children, but none of her sisters and brothers was still alive. In 1947, she had married at age 39 to a successful gentleman 20 years her senior. Vera, who had worked as a bookkeeper in a bank, was a very opinionated, independent spirit. As a widow, she also loved to travel, until she began to lose her eyesight and mobility toward the end of her life.
“She was a real spitfire.” John adds. “If she liked you, you were fine. But if she didn’t like you, watch out!”
‘Non-existent’ Relatives Begin to Surface
But Vera, as it turned out, had not told Betty and John the whole story. She did have nieces and nephews, along with grandnieces and grandnephews. But over the years, each one had in some way offended Vera. So, in her mind, they did not exist. She felt that only one distant relative, Lynn, had ever shown her some kindness. Lynn was the ex-wife of Vera’s grandnephew — her niece Dorothy’s son. After her divorce, Lynn had kept in touch with Vera and did visit on occasion.
Much of the dispute between Vera and her “non-existent” relatives had come from the aftermath of her sister Pamela’s death back in 1988. Vera had accused another nephew, Marshal, of taking some of Pamela’s possessions. She was also certain that Pamela’s daughter Dorothy, Lynn’s mother-in-law, owed her $40,000. Dorothy had never paid the money back, claiming that Vera had told her the money was a gift.
Various family members did not take her side. So Vera claimed she had no family.
As their friendship developed, Vera began to count on Betty even more. Betty had a key to her house and would check on Vera every day and every night. She included her in family Thanksgiving and Christmas. Vera especially loved going to the grandchildren’s baseball games. Betty’s daughter Lisa and granddaughter Tina became especially dear to Vera, with Tina playing dominoes regularly with Vera, and reading to her when her eyesight started to fail.
During the last few years Vera’s health deteriorated. Betty often had to rush Vera to the ER. At one of the many times when Vera was hospitalized, she asked Betty to hold the medical power of attorney. Due to the circumstances, Betty agreed. After all, Vera had “no one else.”
A Poorly Planned $2 Million Estate
Even at this point, neither John nor Betty knew anything about Vera’s estate.
“I never knew what kind of money she had, “ Betty says. “But then one day I mentioned our upcoming appointment with our financial attorney to renew our trust. We were just talking in general about keeping our assets up to date, when Vera suddenly informed us that she had over 2 million dollars and was leaving it all to charity. That was the first time I had ever heard about it. Getting into Vera’s finances unnerved me.”
Vera asked Betty to set up an appointment for her with their financial attorney, and also asked that Betty and John be present at the meeting. When the attorney looked at Vera’s will and her existing trust, he was appalled. In addition to the ten specific charities that were to receive certain percentages of her estate, Vera had made minor bequests such as the dining room set going to Lynn and the forgiveness of Dorothy’s $40,000 loan. No problem there. But the trustee of her existing trust was Vera’s stock broker, which was in violation of the law. And the attorney who wrote up the existing will (the stock broker’s friend) had designated a number of Vera’s personal effects and antiques to be gifts to himself and the stock broker.
Vera surprised everybody by saying she was OK with that arrangement. So after the attorney cleaned up a few details about the trust, the will remained the way it was.
Vera’s Health Takes a Turn for the Worse
Meanwhile Vera was beginning to have “spells.” She would not lose consciousness, but would become silent, stare into space, and feel temporarily numb. She was also losing her eyesight and hearing and had more and more difficulty walking. As her health became more delicate, pneumonia and breathing problems increased. Vera asked Betty to take over her checkbook and help her hire daily caregivers to come into the home.
“I was at my wits end. I couldn’t be over there so much each day.” Betty states. “Hiring the caregivers was the hardest part. The people the agencies sent us were completely useless. I felt trapped because Vera was so dependent on me.
“Finally we found three ladies from our church – one for daytime, one for nighttime, one fill-in – and they totally saved my life.”
Betty wanted to make sure there would be no questions about her day-to-day dealings with Vera’s checkbook. So she kept receipts and careful records and hired a bookkeeper to audit her quarterly. This precaution helped put her mind at ease, but the wear and tear of responsibility was getting to her.
“I really didn’t like having to sell stock to pay for her care. Her house was free and clear, but we were spending about $150,000 per year on her living expenses and medical costs. I constantly worried about whether I was doing it right.”
Then a day came in late November 1999, when one of Vera’s “spells” wouldn’t go away. Betty rushed her to the hospital. Pneumonia soon set in. Since Betty and John were scheduled for a trip back east, Lynn came to Norfolk to look after Vera. Betty welcomed the relief and had a lovely week with her husband and family. She and John returned to find 98-year-old Vera home from the hospital and in good spirits.
Lynn Secretly Changes the Trust
Vera’s good mood lasted only until a few days later, when a package arrived from a lawyer Betty did not recognize. In it was a bill for $2,500 and a completely new trust and will bearing Vera’s signature. In these new documents, the charities received nothing, and Lynn was the executor of the will and the trustee. Lynn was also the sole beneficiary.
“Vera blew her stack,” Betty recalls. “She was screaming, ‘who did this? I don’t want this!’ and I couldn’t get her to calm down. Finally she admitted she did remember someone coming to her in the hospital, but was confused about what it all meant.”
Betty and John took Vera back to their financial attorney, where Vera insisted on a completely new will and trust. Betty agreed to be executor and trustee as well as the medical power of attorney. In this will, Lynn still got the dining room set and Dorothy’s $40,000 was still forgiven. But the original attorney and stock broker no longer received anything. The charities were reinstated with their original percentages. One other major change was that Vera’s house was bequeathed to Betty’s daughter Lisa and granddaughter Tina, to whom Vera was grateful for their devoted attention.
Vera very firmly advised Lynn of the new will, and then told her to get out of her life. Lynn apparently told other family members, including her distant cousin Marshal, who then became the next adversary for Vera’s “helpful neighbors.”
Feeling the Weight of Trying to Help
By this time, Vera was age 99. Her body was weak and the pneumonia was almost constant, but she still had complete control of her mental faculties. Emotionally, however, she was increasingly mean andangry. And she craved attention. She began to lash out at Betty, who was feeling the long-term effects of her responsibilities.
“I had no life,” she sighs. “My blood pressure shot up. My stress level was off the chart. I felt frustrated when I was with her and guilty when I had some time of my own. Only my Lisa and Tina could bring out the nice Vera. With the rest of us, she would scream and throw things.”
The Disgraced Grandnephew Alleges Abuse
Then one evening, while Betty and John were out of town, Marshal, the disgraced grandnephew, came to Vera’s front door. The caregivers, following strict instructions not to admit anyone, turned him away,but he refused to leave. Vera found out he was there and began to scream furiously through the closed door. The caregivers called over Lisa and her husband, who confronted Marshal and convinced him to leave.
Then, just as they were calming Vera down, the police knocked at the door. Marshal had called law enforcement. He alleged that his 100-year-old great aunt was being abused by neighbors and they refused to let family see her. Vera was able to convince the police that she was fine, and they told Marshal to stay away.
A few days later someone from County Adult Protective Services visited Vera. They agreed that she was being treated well. Betty, however, never got over feeling of being threatened by Marshal.
“I had heard about relatives who sued trustees for mishandling affairs. And who was Marshal? He had nothing to do with Vera for more than 17 years. Now suddenly he is ‘concerned.’ I didn’t need that….”
Vera passed away peacefully two days after her 101st birthday. Betty, John, Lisa, Tina and a few other neighbors had given her a party with a nice cake. Betty’s minister performed a simple service. None of the relatives created any further problems.
Lessons Learned and Sober Advice
Two and a half years have gone by, and Betty is finally settling the estate — managing and selling the assets, paying bills and fees. The house has been transferred to Lisa. The charities have finally been paid. Betty has been very diligent about making sure everything was done properly, anxious to close this chapter in her life.
“We did the right thing,” John offers philosophically. “I don’t think we could have done anything differently to make it any easier.”
“I think if somebody asks you to be an executor or a trustee, you should think long and hard about it,” Betty smiles. “When you really care about the person, it is very stressful and very time consuming. It is not something you go into lightly.”