An ugly dispute has erupted among the five children of the late, legendary trial attorney James E. Beasley Sr., pitting the two daughters from his first marriage against the son and two daughters from his second marriage in a battle over the handling of his $55 million estate.
The court battle promises to be even more explosive because the elder sisters are represented by a disgruntled former Beasley Firm attorney who has his own lawsuit pending against the firm.
In a petition filed in Montgomery County Orphans' Court, the elder daughters -- Nancy Beasley and Lynn Hayes -- claim that two of their younger siblings have abused their positions as co-executors of their father's will to benefit themselves and to transfer millions in assets to their mother.
The petition seeks the removal of James Beasley Jr. and Pamela Beasley from their positions as co-executors alleging that they have "conspired" to reduce the value of their father's estate by transferring assets to their mother, Helen Beasley, "so that at the time of her death those assets will pass through her estate" and be divided only among her three children instead of giving a 20 percent share to all five children.
In a lengthy interview, James Beasley Jr. said that there is no merit to any of his sisters' claims and that he expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing in court. All of his actions as co-executor, he said, can be backed up by documents from lawyers who have assisted in the management of the estate.
Under the terms of his father's will, he said, the five children will receive their inheritances only after the death of his second wife, Helen Beasley. Until then, he said, most of the funds remain in trust to provide an income for her.
James Beasley Jr. also said that he worries that his reputation will be tarnished by his sisters' allegations even if he ultimately wins the court battle.
The 34-page petition by the elder sisters includes a slew of allegations about the alleged mishandling of the estate, including a claim that four airplanes worth $5 million were sold by James Beasley Jr. to himself for an unsecured note of about $1.8 million.The elder sisters also claim that funds from the "residuary estate" were improperly used to buy a $1.5 million condominium in Boston for Helen Beasley.
According to the petition, the will called for trusts worth $38 million to be established and for Helen Beasley to receive income from the trusts "for life." But upon Helen Beasley's death, the petition says, the trusts are to revert to the residuary estate to be divided among all five children.
Nancy Beasley and Lynn Hayes are represented by attorney Keith S. Erbstein, a former member of The Beasley Firm who is now with Young Ricchiuti Caldwell & Heller and has his own pending lawsuit against The Beasley Firm.
In response to the petition, lawyers representing James Beasley Jr. and Pamela Beasley have moved for Erbstein to be disqualified, arguing that the "only interest" he represents "is his own."
In the motion, attorneys Beverly R. Budin, Hara K. Jacobs and Adam Finkelstein of Ballard Spahr Andews & Ingersoll argue that Erbstein was "fired" from The Beasley Firm in November 2005 and "has since waged a bitter course of litigation against The Beasley Firm" and James Beasley Jr. in order to avoid paying the firm more than $1 million he allegedly owes.
As a result, the motion alleges, Erbstein suffers from a conflict of interest because "simply put, every dollar that Erbstein wins for himself in his personal litigation is a loss of funds for the estate and ultimately a loss of funds for Erbstein's clients."
Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Calvin S. Drayer Jr. told the lawyers in a recent conference that he will hear the motion seeking Erbstein's disqualification in March and will consider the allegations by the elder sisters in April as part of the court audit of the accounting of the estate.
Erbstein declined to be interviewed, saying "I don't want to try my case in the press" but that he was "confident" that he will not be disqualified from the case because "there is no conflict."
So far, the court documents paint a picture of a family torn apart by disagreements over the handling of a prominent lawyer's substantial fortune.
James Beasley Sr. was widely considered one of Philadelphia's best trial lawyers, with a commanding courtroom style and a flamboyant personality to match. Once, when he was featured in a Philadelphia Magazine profile, he was photographed standing atop his desk wearing a suit, a cowboy hat and boots.
In 1999, the Temple University School of Law was re-named The James E. Beasley School of Law in recognition of Beasley's $20 million gift to the school.
According to court papers, Beasley had two children in his first marriage to Gloria Beasley -- Nancy Beasley of Secane, Pa., and Lynn Hayes of Folsom, Pa.
In 1958, he married Helen Beasley, and they had three children -- James E. Beasley Jr. of West Chester, Pa.; Pamela J. Beasley of Lexington, Mass.; and Kimberly Beasley Schmucki of Swarthmore, Pa.
The couple divorced in 1984 but re-married in 2003, about a year before his death.Much of the current dispute among the siblings centers on how to interpret a provision in the will in which James Beasley Sr. left his personal and household effects and his automobiles to his wife, Helen.
Another key dispute centers on James Beasley Jr.'s management of the law firm where he and his father worked together and his role in deciding how the firm would compensate his father's estate upon his death.
The elder sisters claim in their petition that the four airplanes owned by their father -- including two rare P-51s -- are worth $5 million but that their brother "sold the airplanes to himself at a price greatly below market value."
The petition alleges that James Beasley Jr. at first sold the planes to himself for about $1.83 million by giving an "unsecured note" to the estate. But later, the petition alleges, he set out to conceal his "self-dealing" by interpreting the will in a way that gave the planes to his mother and transferring the note to her.
"By attributing the airplanes to his mother, James E. Beasley Jr. sought to cure himself of his blatant self-dealing," the petition alleges.
In an interview, James Beasley Jr. said the facts alleged in the petition are simply wrong.
An appraiser was hired to value the planes, he said, and the executors honored those appraisals. And while the petition says the four planes were kept in "pristine" condition, James Beasley Jr. said that some were in serious states of disrepair.
James Beasley Jr. also said his sisters' petition misinterprets his father's will and that several estate lawyers have agreed that the planes were part of Helen Beasley's inheritance.
The daughters contend in the petition that the planes should have been part of the "residuary estate" and that the bequest to Helen Beasley included homes and "personal and household effects" as well as automobiles, but said nothing about the planes, a boat and a motorcycle.
But James Beasley Jr. said in the interview that his father's will also specifically provided that if Helen Beasley predeceased her husband, the airplanes were to go to his son. It would make no sense to put the planes in the residuary estate, he said, because that would mean that the planes would be held in trust until his mother's death.
Likewise, James Beasley Jr. said, his father's boat was also deemed to be part of his bequest to his wife by the estate lawyers who have been assisting in the interpretation of the will.
The petition by the elder sisters cites the boat as another instance of James and Pamela Beasley's alleged breaches of their fiduciary duties, alleging that the boat was worth $217,000 but that the proceeds of more than $194,000 from the sale of the boat were "improperly distributed" to Helen Beasley.
A Harley Davidson motorcycle was also part of the estate, the petition alleges, but was given by James Beasley Jr. to a friend.
"James E. Beasley Jr. has treated, and continues to treat, the estate's assets as if they were his own personal property, to dispose of as he sees fit, without regard to any of the other beneficiaries under the will," the petition alleges.
But in the interview, James Beasley Jr. said the motorcycle never belonged to his father and that his sisters are simply mistaken in claiming that it was.
"My father never owned a motorcycle," he said. "It was mine."
The confusion, he said, stemmed from the fact that the motorcycle was kept at his father's home in Florida and a clerical error in the way it was titled.
Another one of the key disputes centers on how The Beasley Firm calculated the value of James Beasley Sr.'s interest in the firm.
The petition by the elder sisters alleges that James Beasley Jr. engaged in "self-dealing" when he decided on his own that the firm would pay about $1.6 million to the estate -- about $430,000 for his father's capital account and about $1.2 million for "work in progress."
"James Beasley Jr. engaged in self-dealing between himself as executor and himself as sole voting unit holder of the firm, and sole managing member of the firm," the petition alleges.
The elder sisters claim their brother "gave away millions of dollars in payments due the estate from The Beasley Firm, an arrangement which has greatly inured to his own benefit."But in the interview, James Beasley Jr. said it is Erbstein who suffers from a conflict because Erbstein's suit against the firm will have a direct impact on how much the firm gives to the estate.
For tax purposes, he said, it was necessary to get an appraisal of the value of his father's cases at the time of his death. But in Orphans' Court, he said, it is the actual amount recovered in those cases that matters.
James Beasley Jr. also said he wasn't acting alone because his father's will explicitly provided that attorney Richard Sprague of Sprague & Sprague would oversee the calculation of any payments from The Beasley Firm to the estate. Sprague's office said he was out of town; he did not return two phone calls seeking comment.
The Ballard Spahr attorneys, in their motion seeking Erbstein's disqualification, argue that when Erbstein left The Beasley Firm he took 19 cases with him, including one that had already resulted in a $5.4 million jury verdict.
"These cases were the very same cases in which [James Beasley Sr.], and thus his estate, held a financial stake," the motion says.
Under the firm's operating agreement, the motion says, Erbstein was required to immediately reimburse the firm for the costs expended and the firm's share of any recovery but he "refused and continues to refuse to pay."
As a result, the Ballard Spahr lawyers argue that Erbstein suffers from a conflict of interest.
"Erbstein is willing to commit his clients to a legal position that would deny them the benefit of a portion of a seven-figure payment from one of The Beasley Firm's largest creditors -- Erbstein himself," the motion alleges.
And while Erbstein is criticizing the co-executors for the manner in which they calculated the payment the firm made to the estate, the motion alleges that Erbstein "fails to mention" that he was "involved in the decisions he now criticizes," and that he declared his support in writing at the time.
"Erbstein must be disqualified," the Ballard Spahr attorneys argued, "because he is not only a necessary witness to these proceedings, but by virtue of his personal enrichment and contemporaneous support of the allocation, he is a witness adverse to his clients."